I have to keep reminding myself that this is the same patch of land where I went to school and played baseball and had dinner with my grandparents every Friday night. Every time some new, awful report bubbles up—of prisoners rioting, of looters menacing Children’s Hospital, of water so high there aren’t roofs to wave a white flag from, of people lying on the interstate waiting for someone to tell them where to go and what to do—New Orleans seems more like a scene out of 28 Days Later than a place where people ever lived and worked and raised their families.
A little more than 48 hours after Katrina strafed the city, I’m starting to mourn a place that’s not quite dead but seems too stricken to go on living. The promises early yesterday that breached levees would be patched with airlifted sandbags came to nothing. The exhausted-looking mayor reported last night that the sandbag-dropping helicopters didn’t show up. So much for deus ex machina.
Local television stations, now streaming their broadcasts online, plead with people who aren’t watching: You will be arrested if you’re found on the street in Plaquemines Parish. Don’t drink the water in St. Tammany until you’ve boiled it for a good long while. On the Times-Picayune’s message boards, supplications stack up unanswered: “Looking for Gary,” “Looking for Teldrich,” “Carole & Monte DAVIS???” I search for the names of friends who stayed behind and don’t find them. I’m sure they’re riding it out somewhere, on a second floor without electricity or water to drink or in a shelter with thousands of others, but it’s impossible to reach them. The cell phones are dead and all the circuits are busy anyway.
As the endlessly looping aerial footage shows little more than a giant lake with highway overpasses peeking out, I’m glad I wasn’t there and terrified I never will be again. A friend from high school told me he took the scenic route out of town on Sunday morning so he could remember the places he needed to remember: Molly’s at the Market, the Warehouse District, the Uptown JCC, the corner of St. Charles Avenue where he drank his first beer. I squint at the screen, searching for some kind of landmark to say goodbye to, but the only thing that’s recognizable is the Superdome, which now looks like a potato with the skin peeled off to reveal the rotten insides.
As I watch my hometown slowly drown on CNN, it’s hard to keep track of all the things to feel guilty about. I’m ashamed that my family has lived in New Orleans for 100 years yet I don’t know the city well enough to figure out what they’re showing on the helicopter flybys. There are so many canonical things—eating at Galatoire’s, listening to traditional jazz at Preservation Hall, visiting the Cabildo—that I somehow never got around to doing. Even with the cracked levees threatening to spill Lake Pontchartrain over the entire East Bank of New Orleans, the French Quarter, the Garden District, and Uptown (where my parents live) will most likely survive because they’re on relatively high ground. The poorest neighborhoods, though, are the lowest-lying ones. Places like Treme and the Lower Ninth Ward are full of people without the means to have gotten themselves out; the ones left behind had the least to lose but lost whatever they had.
I’m grateful that my parents and grandparents and aunt and uncles and cousins got out in time, but I’m worried about what they’ll go back to once the water recedes and the fallen oaks get cleared. I’m more worried that they won’t go back at all.
My father and his father and his father all grew up in New Orleans and went to medical school there and stayed in town to practice medicine. But for all its multigenerational families, New Orleans is—or maybe was—a place where a third of the people live below the poverty line and where the job market has been stagnant for decades. The gentrification of Marigny and Bywater in the last few years brought hope that the urban renewal that had come to so many other cities might not pass by New Orleans entirely. Those neighborhoods are now underwater. The city will get rebuilt no matter what, if only for the oil and gas industries. But who all is going to be there?
I don’t remember much of what I did when I went down to visit my folks a few months ago: ate some fried seafood at some hole in the wall, went to my grandparents’ house, probably walked under the canopy of oak trees in Audubon Park. Maybe it’s a heartless thing to say when there are still people down there in the muck, but it’s tragic to think of all those beautiful trees, in the park and on the Uptown streets that I drove through every day, toppled and on the ground, waiting to be chopped into bits and trucked away. There are friends’ houses that will no doubt be so much flotsam, neighborhood restaurants that won’t serve another oyster po’ boy, bars where the jukebox won’t ever play Allen Toussaint or Ernie K-Doe again.
With the water in the city still rising, there are rumors floating that they might have to dynamite the levees to get the water flowing back to Lake Pontchartrain. Maybe the only way to save it is to blow part of it up and start over. Next time, I’ll make sure to remember everything.