Friday, March 5, 2010

Katrina, in Brief

A day I knew that my life would never be the same was August 30, 2005. That was the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall just outside of my beloved Crescent City. That was a day when I realized that everything I knew would stand forever changed. The landscape I had adored for the past eight years would be forever altered. August 30, 2005 is a day I will never, ever forget.
I was in the city of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina ravaged her. I had been in New Orleans for years, slumming it up in a cycle of addiction and disease. I was living outside of the French Quarter, sustaining my body on alcohol and heroin alone. I was working at a sleazy Bourbon Street strip club. I was in a state of existence that I barely realized Katrina was approaching.
I did not evacuate for one simple reason. I did not have enough heroin to leave the city. I had about a days supply, and I was not going to leave with impending withdrawal. I knew where to get dope in New Orleans, so if I stayed I had some chance of not getting incredibly ill. If I left, sickness was a definite. How could I possibly go to God knows where for God knows how long without knowing where the dope was? Leaving the city as Katrina approached was not even an idea I seriously entertained.
As the rain began to fall, the dope in my system had already started to fade away. I took a tranquilizer and went to sleep. A restless, fitful sleep of a dope sick junky, but sleep nonetheless. I remember hearing branches hitting the window that was above the sweaty bed I was lying in. I remember hearing the winds howling and the rain pounding harder than I had ever heard before. I remember when the power finally cut off because the air conditioner in my tiny bedroom stopped. I remember thinking, “It is really going to get hot now.” That is about all I remember about the storm itself.
I am thankful that I had enough tranquilizers to sleep through part of the sickness, and in turn part of the storm. I cannot imagine seeing that raging hurricane through the eyes of dope sickness. Although, now that I am clean, I do wish I had been able to remember more of the storm itself.
When I woke, the sun was shining and everything was much quieter. Also, I felt much better and decided to venture out of the tiny room I had been holed up in. Before leaving the apartment, I rifled through all the pockets of the dirty pants that had been discarded on the floor, looking for dope. I found almost half a bag! I went to the bathroom to take the shot. Thankfully the water was still running and I did not have to use the reserve buckets we had made. I instantly felt much better.
I carefully ventured out of the apartment and up the stairs of the old house that had been renovated to contain several one bedroom apartments. We all shared a large balcony that overlooked Esplanade Avenue, right by the I-10 and Claiborne. The sun was bright, and the hall was well lit even without the power. When I stepped out onto the balcony, the sight that unfolded before me was surreal.
Water was everywhere. The water was so high that is was up to the fifth step of the porch below. The middle ground was covered completely. All the cars were full of water, some were even completely submerged. The streets had disappeared and been replaced by rivers.
There were several people wading through the foreboding muck. The water was up past most people’s waist as they pushed their way slowly through. People were dragging garbage cans that were overflowing with all kinds of things- groceries, liquor, diapers, and whatever else had been removed from the abandoned stores nearby. Everyone passing waved. They all looked wearied and tired, but spirits seemed relatively high. Some people were flat out wasted, wading through the water with the blinders induced by alcohol. Every now and then a boat would pass, both motorized and paddled.
Most of my neighbors who stayed behind were on the balcony and I saw several people I knew wading past in the middle ground. I learned later as I ventured into the water myself that it was much shallower on the middle ground. We all looked on the scene in disbelief. My neighbors, who had seen the water rising for hours still wore the same shocked expression that I did. The water did not seem to be ebbing, but instead was steadily rising, according to my neighbors. Several of them had ventured out a little and reported it was like this everywhere. The word on the street, or the river shall I say, was that a lot of the Quarter was pretty dry.
I just sat on that balcony most of the day. Many of my friends passed by, handing looted bottles of liquor up. Several fellow junkies had broken into the Esplanade Pharmacy, and by late afternoon the pills were flowing. We were all well on the way to getting wasted.
I am not sure what time I got up that day, as no one had working cell phones or clocks, and no one I knew wore a watch. We judged the time by the light from the sun, which was difficult on such a bright day. It was actually a beautiful day. The sky was blue and the winds were calm. It did not seem too hot, but maybe just because everything was so wet.
I finally ventured out after numerous shots of cheap whiskey and several oxycontin. I would have stayed if I had realized how late it was. But the sun was so bright, and no one had any idea what time it could be. I waded down Esplanade and then through the Treme. The landscape was much the same; some parts were much deeper than others. Undoubtedly, water was everywhere.
As I approached the Quarter, the water did get much shallower. I headed straight to The Abbey Bar, which was my home away from home. In all my years in New Orleans I had never seen the doors of The Abbey closed. It is a twenty four hour bar that never has less than ten customers at any given time. Honestly, I did not even think The Abbey had a front door. When I arrived, the door was shut and locked up with a thick chain. That was the first moment I began to think that this was serious. Very serious. We had no radio or TV, so there was no way to know the extent of the damage. The only reference we had was what was in front of us.
I headed past The Abbey, in shock. The owner of Molly’s on the Market had the doors open. I went in and he sold me a shot and gave me a beer. He said that he had heard the whole city was inundated with water and some places were devastated. He informed me the levy had been breeched in quite a few places. He looked very worried.
I wandered through the Quarter to see what else was open. The only other place that was open was Johnny White’s on Bourbon Street. There were about 20 people in there, some of which had been there throughout the storm. This was the only place that stayed open the entire time. This was a place of information exchange. Everyone who ventured through the Quarter had stopped here, and many people left messages with the bartender. I saw at least seven people I knew, and I heard about several others who had fared well. I noticed it was starting to get darker, and I headed home.
That was one of the scariest walks I have ever taken through New Orleans. It seemed to have gotten dark in a matter of minutes, and I had a long way to go. With all the power out, it the city was darker than I ever imagined. It was weird to look down Bourbon and not see the neon glow. As I turned down Esplanade, I could not even see my hand. Wading through water that was waist deep and black as an oil slick was treacherous. My mind was running away with thoughts of all the things that could be lurking around me, and I would not see it until it was right on top of me.
The moon was bright, and I let her guide my way. Her brightness sent ripples of reflections all over this river before me. The moonlight seemed to jump around over the surface. I looked up, and the stars shone brightly. It was at this moment I realized I had never seen the stars from the city before. The street lights are just too bright, and the stars are dimmed beyond our vision. Pausing for just a moment, I basked in the beauty of nature, something one rarely does in a city. My fear took over again and I knew I had to keep moving.
I made it safely home and did not venture out after dark again. I stayed there for thirteen days when I was told I must leave or go to jail. I ended up being evacuated to Rhode Island. It wasn’t until I got there and watched TV that I realized how much damage and destruction Katrina had caused. It was two months before I went back, and the devastation was overwhelming. New Orleans will never, ever be the same again, but I do have hope that one day the remnants of Katrina will all be a memory of the past.


  1. You have a typo Toby, Katrina made landfall Monday, August 29, 2005 in southeast Louisiana. She Dissipated August 30, 2005

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