katrina chronicles revisited

katrina chronicles

A decade ago, before MJE was a even a twinkle in her mother’s eye, hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and MJE’s alter ego penned a series of dispatches about the experience. In honor of the tenth anniversary MJE is reprinting those rambling postings. They were written during the immediate days and weeks after the storm detailing as best I could the experiences. Some were exciting, some frightening and some hilarious and I doubt that I am likely to have anything to match it in my lifetime.

Part 1

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday, August 28, 2005. New Orleans is home and where my husband and I operate a bio-environmental lab in the old Zatarain’s pickle factory. When the storm approached we were in Kenya, just returning to Nairobi from safari and had not seen or heard any news for weeks.  Our son managed to reach us at our hotel just before we left for the airport to fly home and told us that there was a huge storm in the gulf heading for New Orleans and that everyone was being forcibly evacuated.  Our lab manager had called him in a panic about what to do at the lab to protect it. My husband slowly and carefully ticked off at least a month’s worth of precautions for our son to relay to a woman who was frantically packing whatever possessions she could cram into her car before she fled for her life. Needless to say, precautions were not taken as instructed.

From Nairobi we flew to Amsterdam where we watched CNN international in the KLM lounge as the storm closed in on New Orleans. My husband reached our lab manager who was on the road to Florida and learned that, despite his instructions, our most important assets, the three nitrogen tanks housing our cell lines had not been put up off of the floor.  Any flooding that got into the tanks would destroy the cell lines and we would be out of business. Just before Katrina’s landfall we boarded our plane for Atlanta and spent the next nine and a half hours girding our loins with mini bottles in anticipation of what would await us. We spent the night in Atlanta with our son and his wife and watched as the levees broke. The next day, we drove to North Carolina where we have a small house in the mountains and settled in to watch the collapse of not only the city’s levees but also the fabric of its society, unimaginable images of violence and despair, thankful that we were not part of that number, as the old song goes.

Days went by and the city was finally evacuated of the last few pitiful souls and the pumps started to drain the water.  The city was locked down, patrolled by National Guard troops, Marines, and Navy Seals to keep the anarchy at bay.  We were safe and comfortable in our little nest but knew that if the lab had flooded, or remained without electricity for much longer we were out of business. And being out of business was definitely not on my agenda, so we formulated a “plan.”

If we wanted to maintain the status quo, which by the by, had become pretty damned comfortable, we had better take matters into our own hands. We flew into Baton Rouge from Atlanta the next afternoon, met by an old friend who would come to rue the day she ever opened her home to this bunch.  Meanwhile, our lab manager had flown in from her refugee home in Florida that morning and had been furiously working the powers that be to enable us to get a pass to get into New Orleans to retrieve our nitrogen tanks and other lab equipment, not to mention euthanize our animals.  She fortunately had a strong contact with one of those nebulous Louisiana governmental enforcement agencies whose purpose is entirely unclear. No matter, he got her in to see the person (agency and position also somewhat ill-defined) who could give us authorization. She had explained in her most persuasive and probably tearful manner that the loss of these cells and the associated research data and materials could probably result in nothing less than a global water safety crisis, not to mention the poor gerbils in our animal colony fighting for their very lives in cages without food or water. Mission accomplished, transit papers approved.

Our original plan was to stage a commando raid into New Orleans by ourselves with our friends’ truck and SUV, but our lab manager’s contact warned us in no uncertain terms that New Orleans was actually far more dangerous than the news organizations were portraying and it was an ill advised scheme.  He said that if we did go in that we would need at least a two person armed escort to convoy us in and out and to stand guard while we loaded the equipment into the truck. A few more snuffles from our drama queen and “We got a convoy!” We finally received our signed authorizations about 6pm, just in time for cocktails. We were all instructed to have one copy on our person at all times and extra copies in each vehicle. We enjoyed a lively evening, one last fling before battle, and toddled off to bed.  The “plan” was to meet at 7am near the interstate to rendezvous, however about 11pm we received a call from one of the agents saying that word had reached the top of the chain of command and they were no longer authorized to escort us. Now, not only were we sneaking into a war zone, but doing it with two agents who didn’t have “permission.” What the hell, we split the difference, moved the rendezvous time up to 4am and figured the guys with guns could be back before they were missed.

My husband, our lab manager and I drove our friends’ truck and SUV to the rendezvous point in the dark. My nerves were a mass of misfiring ganglia, having medicated myself with red wine and xanax before the call moving the mission to 4am. I really would have been in much better shape at 7am. I was foolishly designated to drive one of the vehicles. Military troops, rescue vehicles, police, and convoys of airboats and flat boats crowded the interstate all the way to New Orleans. The traffic was backed up almost to Baton Rouge, with checkpoints every few miles. In order to bypass the masses heading east we edged off the shoulder of the interstate and drove with the right wheels on the striated cement edge and the left wheels off the road in the grass. The constant thumping of the ridged cement did nothing for my frayed nerves, nor did the 30 degree angle of the car as we flew along at 60 mph in the dark. However, with the blue lights flashing in our lead car and the one in the rear and our own emergency blinkers on, our hastily assembled convoy drove through roadblock after roadblock without a hitch.

We approached New Orleans just as the sun was rising and started to see evidence of damage as we crossed Lake Pontchartrain.  In Kenner, near the airport, the entire side of a hotel was missing and a Self Storage facility was torn open leaving the contents of the units in full view. But where was all the water? We found it soon enough as we tried to get into town via the Earhart expressway which was impassible. We turned around, as we were the only vehicle in sight.  It didn’t seem strange until later that we had made a U-turn in the middle of a freeway.  We backtracked and took the Huey Long Bridge to the west bank and drove into downtown over the Greater New Orleans Bridge.  The bridge gave us an amazing vantage point from which to survey the city. Huge plumes of smoke arose from several fires.  There was no water pressure so Chinook helicopters were whirring overhead transporting huge bags filled with river water to douse the flames.  We took a quick detour though the Central Business District just to see the damage. It looked amazingly intact, trees and wires down but no major visible building damage. Canal Street seemed to be flooded and the water was impassable as we approached the Superdome.  We then drove up St. Charles Ave. (and saw the first of many surreal sights, a man jogging along the streetcar tracks), there were trees down everywhere but the street had been cleared of debris and was drivable. Throughout Uptown, the houses appeared to be perfectly intact complete with manicured lawns and lush green landscaping, oddly untouched by vast heaps of broken limbs and fallen oak trees. The entire city was eerily empty except for national guard companies stationed at major intersections, guns at the ready. There was no sign of standing water between Dryades and the river, but beyond that, toward Lake Pontchartrain, a sea. Cars and boats floated in among the downed trees and telephone and power lines. We slowly snaked our way through the passable streets  to our house and like the others we had seen, it was in one piece.  The only damage was from the defrosted food in the fridge which had leaked onto the kitchen floor. It had seeped into and buckled a few floor  boards and stank to high heaven. My husband, intent on saving his arsenal  “from falling into the wrong hands”  ran straight upstairs to gather up his massive collection of  guns and ammo and tucked them safely into the trunk of the car.  Meanwhile our lab manager and I madly packed all the files from my office. Cars loaded, we drove to the lab, past a neighbor who had stayed throughout and refused to leave now. We later learned that he had been something of a trouble-maker for the national guard in the area which had resulted in our block receiving more than our fair share of military attention.  Kudos to the crackpot down the street.

Once at the lab, the agents flew into dramatic swat team mode. One agent, gun drawn, entered the building first, as we were positioned outside, presumably out of the line of fire.  After he determined that all was “secure” he took up a post in front of the building, gun at the ready, to make sure we didn’t have any unwanted assistance in removing our equipment. The other agent patrolled the perimeter, whatever that meant.  Then the mad scramble to save our lab started in earnest.  First we had to euthanize the animals that had managed to survive. Then we dragged centrifuges, nitrogen tanks, animal cages, spectrophotometers, chemicals, file cabinets, shipping containers, vials, labels, glassware, computers, phones, copiers…out to the car and the pick up truck.  We retrieved half-warm cells and kit components from the freezers and got them on ice. Just as a point of information, my husband likes to mix business with pleasure so one of the freezers was filled, not with vital biological research data, but with elk, duck, redfish, snipe and wild pig, all of which had been sitting too long without refrigeration. After just an hour, one of the agents signaled that our time was up so we tied down everything we’d been able to grab and off we flew.  We passed a platoon of national guardsmen going house to house looking for people who had stayed behind, forcibly evacuating them, unconstitutionally as it turned out. Little did we know then that a trip from the relative security of these homes to the Superdome or Convention Center for “shelter” would turn out to be the worst part of the Katrina experience for anyone caught up in it.

On our return journey the endless convoys of troops and rescue vehicles continued to swarm into New Orleans. Most of those troops were probably headed for the 9th ward and St. Bernard Parish, by then mainly to retrieve bodies. We had heard that it might take up to a year before the electricity was fully restored and 19 weeks before people would be allowed back into town.  Rumors and misinformation ran rampant and the local and state governments were paralyzed, busy wrangling among themselves about who had the power to do what while the city slipped away.

We unloaded all of our salvaged booty back at our friends’ house in BR. We left most of the equipment behind at the lab but hoped that we had enough to start over again. I looked back over the past few days in amazement.  Our journey from Nairobi to Amsterdam to Atlanta, Baton Rouge to New Orleans seemed unreal.  Not to mention the passage from a devil-may-care, laissez les bons temps rouler life to one in which everything we had built over 35 years was suddenly neatly contained in a friend’s carport.  I also thought of where we’d been, what we’d seen and done in the past hours and days and wondered why in the world we were so lucky when so many others had lost everything.

Part 2

The next morning we reloaded the nitrogen tanks and empty ice chests into the back of our friends’ car in search of liquid nitrogen and dry ice, both in very short supply in BR. We finally tracked down a facility across town and, after a half hour of negotiation, managed to convince a large leary cajun that we were not terrorists and our nitrogen tanks were not in fact weapons of mass destruction. After agreeing to fudge a bit on the paperwork he grudgingly topped off the nitrogen tanks which had dipped alarmingly low. The issue of how to transport all the lab gear loomed ever larger. We called every truck rental company only to learn that there were no trucks within a several state area.  I finally managed to reach Penske trucks who had one remaining truck in Atlanta which we promptly reserved. We called our son and enlisted his help. He had been dying to get involved, having felt cheated out of participating in our big adventure. He picked up the Penske and drove it down from Atlanta the next day, dramatically heaving himself down from the cab as though he’d just driven a team of oxen from Tennessee to Oregon. The next morning we loaded up the new truck and bid our friends a fond farewell. We left our son waiting for a cab to the airport to fly back to Atlanta and we hit the road, bound for the same destination.

We threw a dart at a map of the southeast and decided that Charleston would be as good a place as any to start over and the next morning off we went, I in my car and my husband in the Penske with our business neatly packed in the back. However, as luck would have it, Hurricane Ophelia was also headed for Charleston. Having become somewhat hurricane-averse we decided to bide our time for a day in Columbia, SC. Oddly enough, that was also the day that there appeared to be a major African American festival going on and we were the only Caucasians in town. There were open air stalls set up along the roadsides selling everything from Kente cloth shirts to fake Fendi bags, people cooking over open air fires, music blaring and masses of people milling about.  I had a strange sort of out of body experience that I was actually back in Nairobi. We opted to push and ended up in Orangeburg, SC east of Columbia at a Hampton Inn where we dined on chili cheese fries and tums paired with bourbon on the rocks.

By the next morning hurricane Ophelia started to look like a positive alternative to another day in Orangeburg, so we hit the road again headed southeast.  A friend had arranged for us to stay at her friend’s beach cottage which she worryingly kept referring to as “very basic”. From the outside it looked just a few rungs up from my husband’s fishing camp. Fortunately, the inside was more than comfortable. We unloaded the nitrogen tanks into the living room (I was, by this time feeling a certain resentment toward these tanks, which were starting to feel like needy babies, constantly demanding to be picked up and transported to some more comfortable spot) and raced over to Lowe’s just before closing time to buy a freezer for the supplies that we’d managed to salvage.

We settled into our little nest but realized that there was no telephone. We were unprepared for life without a phone line, email, cable TV and other basic necessities of a spoiled middle class life. Cell phones became our sole means of communication (for God’s sake how did the early settlers ever manage?)  We did notice that there was a Bellsouth box on the house, but when I called Bellsouth to have a line installed they said that our address was already being used by the Isle of Palms Water and Sewer department. They had apparently appropriated the cottage’s street address for the security system for the little pump house next door. The Bellsouth representative set up a conference call with City Hall, followed by the Dept. of Land Use, then the Tax Assessor and finally the Water Dept., to finally determine that we were in the right address and they were interlopers. Finally, after hours on the cell phone and conversations with the entire city government of Isle of Palms, SC we had a phone number and a line was to be installed four days hence. Not surprisingly, that telephonic marathon was immediately followed by an equally lengthy boozy lunch.

Our next tasks were to contact commercial real estate brokers for lab space, set up bank accounts, find a place to live and of course to yet again call to insurance companies to confirm that yes we were in “Good Hands” but no they had no information about our claim.  But State Farm had told us that while we were “dislodged” they expected us to have additional expenses like restaurant meals, so we hit the dining scene with abandon.  We cooled our heels for three days with nothing to show for it except expanding waistlines.

As the days passed we slowly came to realize that we really did not have all that we needed to reestablish the lab nor did we have any idea how long we would be in limbo. We were also faced with a major dilemma about our lab manager.  She had been willing to move to Charleston, at least temporarily, but her nogoodnik husband refused.  The two of us could not do this alone.  We were stuck. We needed a push.

The next day it was reported that New Orleans mayor Nagin was reopening the city the following week. To stay or not to stay? We still wanted to get ourselves reestablished out of New Orleans, but would it be better to try to do it in a more orderly fashion? We opted for order over chaos. The new plan was to keep the Penske, drive back to our house in the mountains and head back to New Orleans on Monday. However, before we set out we had to cancel the phone order among other things. I called Bellsouth and gave them the number they had assigned us and explained that we were not going to need the line after all. The line had never actually been connected so I mistakenly thought this would be a snap. What a fool I was. Bellsouth informed us that not only did we already have service, but had an outstanding balance of $143.57 which had been referred to a collection agency.

On the road again, hand held two-way radios at the ready, back to where we started this adventure. We’d logged about 30,000 miles, seen Baton Rouge turn into a parking lot filled with NO license plates, Columbia SC put on the dog, Orangeburg serve up culinary delights that stayed with us for days and Isle of Palms boost our spirits with glorious sunsets across the marsh. We’d been offered places to live, places to do business, lines of credit on a handshake and learned the value of always mentioning that we were “REFUGEES.”

We worried about the future: rebuilding a business and a life in a place a fraction of its former size, devoid of commerce, leadership or law and order.  New Orleans had been reduced to a city able to provide only sporadic electricity, a water supply unsafe to wash with much less drink, unreliable phone service and lots of free floating sewerage, nothing we couldn’t handle.

The finale

We resolved to return to New Orleans to start up business again.  But it was déjà vu all over again, Hurricane Rita was headed towards the gulf coast so we had once again been forbidden to return. We sat and waited in the mountains, eating junk food and drinking 24/7 as we flipped between CNN and the Weather Channel. I packed on a massive set of hurricane hips. The path of Rita veered west and missed NO (wiping out what was left of Louisiana) and yet again word came from on high that business owners could return to certain zip codes on Tuesday, the 26th of September. However, the mayor’s office had been notoriously unreliable in their communications so we weren’t sure   But forced inaction coupled with being stuck together for all this time was starting to bring out our less attractive qualities and we decided to hit the road again. At least we would be in separate cars. We decided to drive to Baton Rouge so that when the city opened up we could beat the rush. Just when our friends had finally cleaned up after us we were back.

Before we left I had called our New Orleans house to see if the telephone would ring or the answering machine pick up. Not only did it not ring, but I was instructed that the number had been changed to the number we had been given in Charleston, for the phone line we never got, and the overdue balance which we didn’t owe.  But we were assured that the phone service would be reconnected NO LATER THAN December 16th!

My husband booked a motel room for the night and we were off to Montgomery. He took the lead in the Penske as I followed in his pickup truck.  We had devised what we thought was a devilishly clever refrigerator plan. Knowing our fridge in New Orleans had been sitting without electricity for four weeks and was unsalvageable we would head straight for Lowes when we got to Montgomery and buy a new one. We would then haul it to New Orleans, outfoxing all those desperate people who wouldn’t be able to find a new fridge anywhere. We picked out a beauty and headed for the Penske, attended by two Lowes guys with a monster hand truck to do the heavy lifting.  We cleared a space and the main hand truck guy proceeded to back it up the ramp, where he was stuck inside with a freezer between himself and the door.  So down it came. This time both guys muscled the baby up the ramp the other way around. They got it to the edge of the truck, started to ease it down to the floor, and THE GODDAM FRIDGE WAS 2 INCHES TOO TALL!!!!! Back down again.  We finally conceded defeat at the hands of this appliance and wheeled it back inside.

By this time I was an apoplectic wreck, in desperate need of a good stiff belt.  My husband headed to the hotel in the Penske and I roared off to find the nearest liquor store.  In my desperation to get back to the hotel I almost ran a stop sign and slammed on the breaks, sending the 5 extra containers of gasoline I was carrying in the back of the truck careening all over.  When I got to the hotel I realized that one of the containers had sprung a leak and was filling the bed of the truck with gasoline.  We tried to pour the remaining gas into the Penske tank but by the time we got control of the nozzle we were both drenched in gasoline.

We slogged into the hotel lobby, filthy and sweaty from trying to jam a too-big fridge into a too-small truck and stinking of petrochemicals.  We presented ourselves at the front desk and requested our room.  One look at us and not surprisingly they said they didn’t have a reservation for us. Despite my pleas, we were NOT IN THE SYSTEM and they were fully booked. Meanwhile, my husband had ducked for cover and was out in the Penske frantically trying to find the hotel business card he had used to book the reservation. Eureka!, he found it and yes he had booked a night at the hotel but for the Huntsville location. I grabbed my cell phone and called every hotel chain I could think of but there was not a room to be had in Montgomery. But what ho! There was a Quality Inn right next door, which curiously had lots of rooms available. We should have thought to wonder why, but instead we grabbed a room and began a hotel experience that most people only dream of.

The room had 2 double beds whose bedspreads were printed with what looked like tiny little biohazard symbols. The bathroom had a massive hole in the wall, and grout the color of mustard, with a toilet to match. I pulled back the covers on one bed and was pretty sure the sheets had not been changed after the last guest’s stay and gave that one to my husband. The mattresses were so thin that when you sat on the bed they slid about 6 inches off the other side. Just to lie down required tremendous core strength. But the TV worked and free internet was advertised, except that no one on the staff knew how to access it.

I was awoken in the middle of the night and by an incessant beeping.  My husband is deaf as a post and out for the count having wrapped himself in a toxic cocoon of both the sheets and the mattress pad from his bed, topped off with one of the pillows on his face. I howled at him to get up and check the smoke alarm. He disengaged himself, stood up, and put his “good” ear to the smoke alarm.  Unfortunately, he took one step too far toward the end of the bed and the entire mattress and box springs shot up at a 45 degree angle sending him sliding to the floor. He ended up in a heap underneath his pile of poisonous bed linens, screaming that he’d thrown his back out. First good laugh I’d had in awhile. It turned out the beeping was from his cell phone indicating that he had two missed phone calls which turned out to be from someone he didn’t know who’d dialed his number by mistake.

Next morning we were once again on the road to Baton Rouge where we once again stayed the night. The following day was the first day that business people would be allowed back into New Orleans so we headed out early along with our lab manager, also in Baton Rouge. Traffic was light until we neared New Orleans where there was a roadblock on the interstate. We exited before we reached it and made our way to River Road.  A road block manned by the National Guard stopped us but we were allowed in and headed straight to the lab to start unloading the truck. With the truck empty, we returned it to the rental location and bid a fond farewell to our faithful Penske.

We returned for one last night in Baton Rouge then headed to New Orleans the next day to put ourselves back together. Before departing we spent hours trying to figure out alternative telephone arrangements for the lab as we didn’t know how long it would be before we had telephone service.  Without a phone we were pretty much dead in the water. We had ordered a lap top from Apple and thought we would be able to use Verizon’s broad band access for email.  Unfortunately, Verizon does not acknowledge the existence of Mac products so does not make a compatible card.  While my husband was having fits at the Verizon store I ran to the pharmacy for much needed refills on all of our anti-anxiety meds. We decided that we’d had enough of Baton Rouge and would stay in our house in New Orleans even though we were not “ authorized.” It had power and cable TV, so what if we had a Charleston phone number.

We spent hours with putty knives scraping up freezer residue followed with Lysol, to no avail, the stench was unconquerable. We finally gave up and decided it was definitely cocktail time. My husband sprinted out to get the ice chest on the front porch. When he opened the door he was greeted by a camo-clad National Guardsman sitting on our steps. The soldier whirled around with his very big gun and pointed it squarely at him. He raised his hands and squeeked “Don’t shoot, I live here.”  Hearing the commotion, I raced up front and looked out to the street where a darkened Humvee was surrounded by soldiers. The commander came over to take our names and proof of identity and address. Five minutes later he and my husband were talking hunting rifles and ammo loads.

The next week was filled with clean up and restoration of order in the lab and the house.  Slowly, there were signs of a return to normalcy: a semi truck unloading boxes at Whole Foods, workers cleaning up the remains of the roof at Prytania Liquor, Leon and the boys back in business at Clement Hardware.

On our prior post-Katrina visit I drove through Lakeview, Bucktown and Old Metairie, middle and upper-class areas of town that had been badly flooded.  It was a scene of total and complete devastation. The water marks on the houses were 5-10 feet high, every scrap of vegetation was dead and furniture, insulation, rugs, sheetrock piled in front of every house.  Occasionally, I would see someone slowly picking through the remains of their lives trying to find something worth saving. Across the door frame of one house I saw a makeshift clothesline holding a few hangers of clothing. In some cases I could see straight through the houses from front to back, waterlines throughout.  I realized then that where I was sitting in my car had been 10 feet underwater.

The sight of these houses all of a sudden made the impact of this storm so much more real because these were people “like us”, people to whom this just don’t happen.  These were not desperately poor people who had to be plucked from the roofs of their houses, or warehoused in the Superdome waiting six days for drinking water. These were people you run into at Whole Foods or the manicurist, people who take Pilates for God’s sake!

I had no idea how all of this would shake out.  I guess the rich folks will rebuild their mansions, the poor folks will live in tidy Fema trailers and the “not poor enough” folks will fall through the cracks. The Halliburtons of this world will get the contracts to put the city back together as local people look for work in Houston or Dallas. The levee boards will blame the Corps of Engineers while continuing to waste millions of dollars on the likes of bridges to Casinos on the lake instead of preparing for the storm that everyone except President Bush and Fema knew was long overdue.  The ninth ward will probably get bulldozed and scraped clean, turned into a golf course or perhaps allowed to revert back to the marshland it once was.

Ten years on and some of what I thought would happen didn’t and things I didn’t imagine did. I sure didn’t see the sanitation and disneyfication coming. All those new new orleanians with their money, egos and bland culture. But hopefully the city will survive even that.