New Orleans is a small town, and it’s even smaller when 99 percent of the town goes away. On Broadway near the Tulane campus, I run into a family friend who’s just been salvaging some computers from his law office. A minute later we see Dr. Lance Hill, who gained local fame for organizing the grassroots campaign against David Duke in the early ‘90s. Hill, who’s wearing an orange hat with “RELIEF WORKER” written on it in black magic marker, says his elderly neighbors won’t leave their homes because they’re afraid they’ll be seen, rounded up, and forced to leave town. Hill sets out food, water, and mosquito repellant under an overturned above-ground pool nearby and then blows a whistle that he wears around his neck. “It’s like feeding feral cats,” he says. When some cops tried to get him to leave town by telling him he’d have to go to Houston to get a tetanus shot, Hill stood his ground. “I’d rather get lockjaw than live in Houston,” he says.
My day began in St. Gabriel, the tiny town just south of Baton Rouge where FEMA has set up a crew of morticians, funeral-home directors, forensic dentists, and the like to run tests on the bodies that come in. Fifty-nine bodies have passed through the converted town hall so far; the makeshift lab is equipped to process 130 a day. FEMA keeps us all behind barricades a good distance from the site, but this place feels like death no matter how far away you stand. The only people I see working are digging a giant hole in the ground. It’s not what it looks like, a cop tells me—they’re looking for a busted water main.
In New Orleans a few hours later, I see my first dead body. Well, at least the Army guys I run into tell me it’s a dead body—all I can tell is that it’s a big black garbage bag with something pretty big inside. The bagged body on the shoulder of the I-10 East overpass bothers me a lot less, though, than what’s beneath it. Below the elevated highway, there’s standing water for miles in every direction. The water must be at least waist high—sometimes it’s top-of-the-stop-sign high and halfway-up-the-house high—and it’s mostly a drab gray or olive green, like people have been using it to wash paint from their hands. There are oil slicks floating on the surface. Lots of people have been asking me if the city smells bad. Yesterday, when I stuck to high ground, everything smelled like New Orleans: bad, but the kind of bad you get to know and love. But this stuff is vile and sulfurous, the sort of stench that sends carpets to the Dumpster and cars to the junkyard.
Death is following me around today—when I stop the car right before the Orleans Ave./Vieux Carre sign on I-10 East, the first thing I see on the right side of the overpass is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The graveyard, which opened for business in 1789, is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. Water passes through the front gates with no resistance and licks the bottom of the ancient-looking aboveground tombs. It looks like the ruins of a lost civilization.
The water rises as I head east, nearly reaching the roofs of the squattest houses. The only bright colors in this drab, fetid sea come from the roof of Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-In-Law Lounge. The building looks waterlogged, but the K-Doe-as-Indian-chief mural still pops even from hundreds of yards away. I spent one of my favorite New Orleans nights here five years ago, listening to the now-deceased New Orleans music legend sing about his tip jar while his wife Antoinette yelled at him from the PA system she kept behind the bar. At the end of the show, he led the crowd in a rousing rendition of “White Boy/Black Boy,” the song he pledged would unite the races.
A few exits up, I catch up with a company from the 82nd Airborne Division. Lt. Col. Troy Stephenson tells me they spotted an abandoned van a few days ago with “KILL THE WHITE BITCHES” painted on the side. “You can kind of gather there was some ethnic tension,” he says. Stephenson says his men have had much more success in fishing people out of these poor, black neighborhoods than the New Orleans police. Stephenson says the local police often take fire from holdouts when they send rescue crews in, but his men haven’t been shot at once. Maybe that’s because the relationship between the NOPD and the black community is so fraught. But maybe it’s just because the Army guys have gigantic automatic weapons.
The beret-wearing soldiers sit in their Humvees and spit chewing tobacco into the floodwaters as they wait for three boat crews to come back from a rescue mission. The access ramp they’ve been launching boats from is covered with water bottles, pudding cups, and military meals ready to eat—the remnants of a supply drop made for those who sought shelter on the elevated highway. After being assured that MREs have a “shelf life of a billion years,” I crack open a package of wheat bread that’s probably been sitting on the ground for a few days. It’s not terrible—something like undercooked pizza dough.
The inflatable, black boats come back empty—the crews spotted a dog, but he ran up a tree and onto a roof before they could grab him. A few minutes later, though, the Coast Guard drops off a delirious-looking, shirtless man named Ben they found somewhere in the high water. The 82nd Airborne scoops him up and takes him along as we drive over by Lake Pontchartrain to meet up with some other rescue teams. The lake is beautiful, bright blue and calm, and I remember how water is supposed to look. The convoy stops and we step outside into the sweet-smelling air. Ben starts shouting—he doesn’t like it here. “Colonel, I want to go,” he yells. “Take me back to where you got me.”