floodwaters, tinderboxes and a bear
In 2004, hurricane Ivan hurtled toward New Orleans. We evacuated. My family and I crossed the state line into Mississippi and hunkered down in a high school gym, ate pizza with other evacuees and Red Cross volunteers. We all went home the next day. Ivan changed course at the last minute overnight and missed New Orleans.
Next year, hurricane Katrina.
I thought we’d have an Ivan repeat. Evacuate. Home next day. Everything where we’d left it: bikes leaning against each other on the ground floor; maple kitchen table ringed with metal chairs upstairs; and a clay bear that was significant to me (significant because my aunt, a best friend, made it before she passed away) would be unmoved and unchanged, I thought, standing on all paws on the top floor on a top shelf when we came home again.
We evacuated at night as the storm began to make landfall, bringing the first spattering of rain. A police car rolled passed our house and up South Carrollton Avenue, megaphoning: There’s a mandatory evacuation, leave now! We headed north again. The freeway was a testament to those people who’d evacuated earlier in the summer heat and got caught in bumper-to-bumper standstill. I started counting the abandoned, overheated cars but soon gave up. That night we slept in our car and out of the storm’s path.
The all clear came on the radio early the next morning and was just as I had expected. We’d be heading home. Only a few windows in the CBD had been blown out. The rest of the city was unscathed…but wait. Hold up. Listen. New reports are coming in. There’s water in the city. There’s water in the city and we don’t know where it’s coming from. There’s water in the city and it’s rising. It’s probably a good idea to hold off on coming back. Don’t come back. The National Guard is stationed at the city’s entry points to block anyone from trying to re-enter the city.
Much of the rest was broadcast on TV.
We were glued to the news with the rest of the world, though we watched with other evacuees who began to pour out of New Orleans, seeking refuge. A couple of weeks later CNN played footage of a fire raging down a flooded residential block, burning house after three-story house. That news clip ended abruptly and the last thing we saw was the fire two houses away from ours. There were a few weeks of limbo. And I was hopeful: how could our house burn? I was also realistic: fueled by shoulder-to-shoulder, 5,000 square foot tinderboxes, how could our house not burn? The next-door neighbor told us later that his house and ours were gone, everything. They hadn’t burned to the ground but to the flood level, which we saw when the floodwaters finally receded, when the National Guard stood down and we went back to take stock. It really was gone. All that was left was rubble and ash and flood marks like tidelines across the city. The bikes had become a rusted pile, our metal chairs formed a familial circle around nothing. We waded through it all as a mess of broken pipes spouted water into the air and at whim. But wait. There. On top of the rubble.
That we were the lucky ones.
That we were safe, sound and would always have each other’s comfort.
My aunt’s clay bear stood on all paws, scorched but whole.
Of course it was.
It took eight years after these facts of hurricane Katrina, and so many more, for me to write about New Orleans, to step far enough away from the facts of what happened to begin to write fiction.
a New Orleans story and Brindi’s 2013 National Flash Fiction Day work
Lord, those gangs. New Orleans crawls with ’em. They’re always thieving from me. And what’re they gonna do with my goods? Sell them on the streets? Nah. Who’d pay for ’em? I think they’re giving my goods to their grandmas. Yes, sir. I just want a house with iron balconies and hanging baskets filled with ferns and pretty flowers in baskets on the railing. Orleans style. But those gangs, Lord. The police aren’t bothered. But they’re thieving from me! Pulling the goods right out of my baskets. Roots and all.
I found evidence of the thieving once. Followed a trail of pink impatien petals from the empty baskets on my porch, across the driveway, to the neighbors. That’s where the getaway car parked. That’s where the petals stopped. I got down on my knees to look close to make sure. Could’ve yelled, “Stop! Hooligans!” but they were long since gone
Even after the storm the thieving didn’t stop. Storm left nothing of my house but rubble and ashes and my one palm tree. And someone came along and stole my one palm tree when I was holed up with my sister in the Quarter. Lost everything else but that tree. Family pictures. Mama’s recipes. Pop’s records. Tree hadn’t been in the ground more than a month and what’s that gang gonna do with a secondhand palm tree? Brighten their grandma’s hurricane-wrecked house? Damn horticulture gangs. The police got bigger things to think about.
They’re busy thieving stuff themselves.