by Angeliska on August 30, 2010
I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but it seemed right to share it tonight:
I’ve been thinking about the rain. Another thunderstorm, and as I relish it, my poor old blind dog
is cowering at every rumble of thunder. He’s pacing, and has to be as close as possible to me
at all times. I pat him and reassure him, but he won’t really calm down until after the storm has
passed. I know how he feels. Back when I lived in New Orleans, rain meant something else to
me. Drought was something unthinkable in that city. Like clockwork, those muggy, tropical summer
afternoons would be punctuated halfway through by epic downpours. Those storms would somehow
always catch me on my bike, in the middle of the French Quarter, late for work again. The rain would
come at you sideways, and there was nothing you could do, except try and take cover under one of
the wide balconies or awnings, pulling the wooden shutters close around you to make a fort.
You were just going to get wet, no matter what, so you might as well take cover in a dim bar
with all the hapless tourists in plastic ponchos. Their cheap umbrellas would litter the banquette
outside – wrecked frames, inverted tulips in black and plaid, flipped inside out by huge gusts of wind.
(Photo by Mary-Jane Maybury )
I lived for about five years in a crumbling mansion on the corner of Bourbon and Esplanade.
It was the grandest place I’d ever lived in, and I was more than willing to put up with the fact
that it was literally falling apart because it was so incredibly beautiful as well as insanely cheap.
The apartment I had on the top floor was sprawling, ornate with double balconies and a crystal
chandelier in the bedroom. For a time, we slept on a futon mattress on the floor directly beneath
it, and would stare up for hours, transfixed by the cracks that radiated out from it like a glass wedding
cake on a crazed porcelain platter. I always laughed, saying that it wouldn’t be such a bad way to go –
done in by falling chandelier. After half the plaster in the other room came down over the guest bed,
narrowly missing my elderly cat, we decided to move the bed out of the way.
(Photo by Mary-Jane Maybury )
There were leaks in every room. Over the Italian marble fireplaces, in the kitchen, the parlor –
and most annoyingly, right over the toilet paper holder. I was so stubbornly in denial about the leaks,
that I insisted on keeping my things right where they belonged – as if the leaks would get the picture,
and one day seal up and move along. I kept an altar on the marble mantle, with all my most important
treasures – knowing full well that they’d just get soaked there. Roll after soggy roll of toilet-paper was
sacrificed to my inability to think of a better place to keep it. I’d have fits of anxiety whenever it started
to rain while I was traveling. I’d want to rush back home immediately and move all the important stuff
out of the way of all the indoor waterfalls. One night while I was in New York, it started to storm hard,
setting my heart to racing before I even knew why. I was already reaching for my phone to call home
and remind them to check on the leaks when it hit me that it might not be raining in New Orleans.
(Photo by Mary-Jane Maybury )
When the hurricanes got worse, storms changed for me. Growing up in Texas, I’d always loved a big,
bombastic thunderstorm. I loved the smell of it – heady metal, asphalt and ozone. I loved how fast the
sky could darken, the big sheets of water drenching the parched earth. Some branches might come down,
and you had to watch out for lightning, but that was it. The practice of boarding up windows and evacuating
before a storm was something new, and it wasn’t long before the onset of each new tropical depression or
incipient hurricane was enough to send me into a ripe panic. It was this that eventually chased me out of
New Orleans – the fear of packing, running, battening down the hatches from June to October. It was too
much. The last straw came with a tropical storm that hit New Orleans about a month before Katrina.
No one was making much a of a big deal about it – I caught some murmurings in Matassa’s grocery
store, but nobody was really stocking up. The old man at the front counter reminded me to bring my
stuff in off the balcony, and I wish I’d listened to him. Later that night the wind picked up, and started
tossing my potted plants around like missiles. Earlier that afternoon everyone was just calling Cindy
a tropical storm, but by the time she’d hit us she was classified as a category 1 hurricane. I wasn’t
expecting her strength, not at all. The cast-iron light fixtures that hung from chains on the covered
gallery were whipping around like medieval maces, all the glass smashed out. The big solid oaks
were tossing their limbs, suddenly horribly fluid, and seeming to be more water than wood.
My sweetheart at the time was out there somewhere, in the storm – on his way to come see me,
but it had been hours and I couldn’t imagine him out on his bike in that weather. Or worse, I could –
and did, horrified by images of him being brained by flying branches or debris, laying face-down
somewhere as the gutters filled up with mud. The power went out, and I didn’t even own a flashlight,
nor did I have any candles at the ready. I sat cowering in the dark, watching the storm and trying to
make call friends, but the lines were down. I didn’t have a television, didn’t play the radio, and I hadn’t
yet learned to become an addict of meteorology and storm-tracker websites. I felt so alone, and more
afraid of the weather than I had ever been before – the unexpected power of it, the sucker-punch.
Some hollering from down below rousted me from my brooding, and who but my sweet lover, clad
head to toe in yellow rain-gear, was calling up to me and struggling to lock his bike up in stinging gale.
I couldn’t fathom it, how he had made it to me, or that he had even tried – but man, was I grateful to see
him warm and safe and holed up under blankets in the dark, making me laugh. We made jokes about
the awful sounds coming from the roof. It sounded like it was about to blow off any minute, and little did
we know – it actually was. A month later, when Katrina hit, that’s exactly what happened. The big pieces
of copper that had been tacked down over the patchy roof of our nearly 200 year old house had just peeled
off and flown down the street. Our neighbors across the way stayed through it all, and said they watched the
pieces fly from their front window. I suppose some part of me knew it then, after Cindy, because as that next
morning dawned all calm and bright, I knew I had to go. Out of the blue, I decided I needed to get back to my
hometown. I couldn’t live with the constant threat of annihilation of my home, and all that I held dear. I made
the decision to leave New Orleans after the next Mardi Gras. My grandfather and I went on a trip to Serbia,
Greece and Spain for the whole next month, and two days after my arrival back home – Katrina hit.
I evacuated with my unpacked bags of dirty traveling clothes, my mother’s violin, a box of photos
and my laptop. I went back a month later to salvage what I could from the wreckage, and moved to
Austin, Texas – the place where I was born and raised. I fell deeply in love with an dear friend, quite
unexpectedly – and we bought a house together, and planted an orchard of fruit trees, and a big garden.
I pay attention to the weather now like an old-timer, and I only feel anxiety when it doesn’t rain. The long
summer droughts here can be vicious, and I wish I didn’t know what it is to pray for even a drop. Standing
in the doorway this afternoon, watching the garden get soaked I was thinking about how good it is for us
further west to catch the outlying bands from the big storms in the Gulf, and feeling simultaneously guilty.
I’d never wish for a hurricane, especially now that the effects of a major storm could be so far beyond
catastrophic. How many fervent wishes and spells and prayers did I add to the well of voices chanting
the deluge away from us in Crescent City? Now I follow the ancient charms to bring water, fill the resevoirs.
Drop a stone, watch the ripples – this is living that adage directly, feeling the ripple dump right down on you,
wondering if it’s soiled with oil and Corexit. The Mississippi river changes between its head and its tail –
it sheds it’s skin like a snake halfway down, becomes thicker and clogged with poison. You can dip your
toe in it in Minnesota, but I can guarantee it’s not the same river you’d be crazy to touch in New Orleans.
When I lived there, I remember feeling awful for being so glad when a hurricane would hit Alabama
or Florida instead of Louisiana. I’m thinking about blessings and curses,
about living in such exciting times, and I’m thinking about the rain.
(Photo by Richelle Forsey)
“Last week i was in New Orleans and happened to spot the only ‘surviving’ Banksy in the city.
‘Rain Girl’ – ‘Apparently there was some kind of storm here a few years ago’, is the only one of
Banksy’s New Orleans pieces saved from Fred Radtkes’ aka the Gray Ghost paint roller.
It’s on the side of the Drop-In Center at 1428 Rampart St. and under a sheet of plexi-glass.
It is one of a dozen or so he created on/for/around the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
If the home/building owners had a chance, they could have made a fortune from the Banksy
pieces (apparently they increased the property values by 75, 000 – 200,000 USD), instead a
moron with too much time on his hands covered them up. In October of 2008, said moron,
Fred Radtke finally went too far with his gray touch and defaced a comissioned mural on
the wall of 2930 Burgundy St. owned by Southern Waterproofing. According to the locals
he was fined and ordered to pay for the re-painting of the mural.
He should have been banned from purchasing paint.”
– Richelle Forsey
✸ Katrina “Survivors” versus “Internally Displaced Persons” More Than Mere Semantics
(Thanks to Clayton Cubitt for this one.)
✸ Sticking a Happy Face on Katrina
— By Mac McClelland, who is my newest hero. She saw Obama speak in New Orleans
for the Katrina Anniversary the other day, and had this to say:
“Obama: ‘No need to dwell on what you all experienced during Katrina.’
Beg to differ, Mr. President. Lest the govt let that happen again.”
“But recovery? The word feels good in my ear, the sound of it nearly redeeming —
but it doesn’t entirely ring true. What happened to us in the summer of 2005 isn’t
something you recover from. It’s something that you stand up to if you’re able,
and it’s something you may conspire to defy if you choose — but you never really
recover from it. In the beginning we dreamed of being whole again and so marched
blindly in the direction of that dream, never really knowing how the story would resolve,
or even if it could resolve. We’re still on that road and still can’t say for sure where it will
take us, but we have to believe it’ll be someplace better.
The Katrina experience was a rude thing that dared to define each of us without our
permission. It changed who we are, informed who we’ll be, and altered our perception
of where we came from. Pre-Katrina life has become a thing of nostalgia, like Elvis Presley
and sock hops, not quite real anymore but ever-precious in our hearts. Many years from now
our grandchildren will ask us in wide-eyed wonder about it all — and we’ll tell. And then we’ll
go on about our recovery even as the wetness of our eyes contradicts the words on our lips.”
– Louis Maistros
(Photo by Tony Allen-Mills)
If you’ve still got it in you, here’s some collected writings
about my experiences with Hurricane Katrina,
in reverse chronological order. Dig in:
✸ One Year