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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

For Dave

My friend Dave lived in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina forced his hand. He was a page designer for the New Orleans' newspaper, The Times-Picayune. A damn good one as it turns out, according to the Pulitzer committee, which honored him and his co-workers for their efforts during those chaotic days before and after the storm. He snapped this picture as they were being forced to finally evacuate the paper. He designed the now-familiar front page that read, simply, "Catastrophic."

I traveled to New Orleans earlier this summer for work. A man named Burnell Williams spent hours taking me all over the city and talking about his experiences growing up there and his life since the storm. "I thought about leaving," he said. "But what's the use?" The emptiness of the city strikes you. There used to be 600,000 people in New Orleans, now there are 200,000. We stood in front of houses in the Lower 9th Ward spraypainted with what one writer called "a grim taxonomy": symbols and codes detailing death or emptiness found inside. What is so utterly frustrating is that in that neighborhood and so many others, the devastation stretches as far as you can see. Standing on Dorgenois Street in the Lower 9th that day in June with Mr. Williams, nearly a year after Katrina, it was like the storm had hit a week ago. The sight of a young woman my age walking out of her house through what looked like a tunnel of debris, carrying one brick in each hand and depositing it on the curb was too much to take.

But what I think is getting lost this week in the blathering of politicians, is what people like Dave went through during those initial days a year ago. He sent an email on Aug. 30. As he points out, some of it is evidence of the rumors that abounded in the chaos, but it shows what people had to contend with and consider as they tried to figure out the best way to move around the city and survive:

From :
Dave Baker <>
Sent :
Tuesday, August 30, 2005 10:38 PM

I'm happy to say that I'm out of New Orleans. Newspaper employees evacuated the building this morning as the floodwaters rose higher and higher and the editors were worried that the point of no return was approaching: Leave right then while the trucks could still make it out, or stay on the third floor and hope for the best.

I'm in Baton Rouge, staying with a friend from the band and his girlfriend, at her house. I took the night off and will probably not return to work for a few days. (Last night was the most chaotic work experience I have ever had and hope to have.) The newspaper operation has effectively been moved to Baton Rouge. Doing an online edition only. We're making normal newspaper pages, but instead of physically printing them, we're posting all the pages online....The front page today has in big type, CATASTROPHIC, which really sums up what is happening there...

Get this stroke of luck: Billy, who is keeping my dogs, managed to get to Baton Rouge as well, though I hadn't heard from him since Sunday, and he just happens to be staying three houses down. AND he has the dogs. I was so afraid that the dogs would somehow be left behind, not on purpose, but just because Billy somehow would have no other option. It really is a fight for survival in some parts of the city. And I haven't been able to call anyone with a 504 area code. Cell phone communication is pretty impossible. And besides, my battery's dead.

My cat, Hillary, was not so lucky. Billy couldn't find her when he was rushing to get out. He was clearly feeling guilty about it when I saw him tonight and gave him a big hug, and I told him not to worry about it, he did the best he could.

If I could, I'd rent a car and go back and try to get Hillary, but I understand that the police aren't allowing traffic to come into the city.

In the rush to leave this morning, the 220 of us at the office were told to carry only a couple of things with us. So right now I own: my cell phone with dead battery, my camera, a flashlight, keys, and the clothes on my back. The car is fine so far. I waded out into neck-high, disgusting, gross water to move it to higher ground. But who knows when I'll be able to get it back. It's still on the side of the freeway.

I think it will take a long time to clear all that nasty water. As for the house, I don't know. Billy lives in the neighborhood, and he said it was dry yesterday, but when he left this morning, there was a foot of fast-rising water. I hope my tenants next door are OK.

Some things you may have heard about: Some of this is just rumors and unconfirmed stuff, but take it as it is... stuff I've heard. There was a jail break and maybe a riot at the prison that is VERY close to the office. The police apparently evacuated their headquarters, which is just a bad sign. Officials are evacuating the Superdome of its thousands of people because water is rising inside. Just think about being trapped in that thing. There was a big fire in the heart of the city as we were leaving. Not sure what was in flames, but think for a moment about a big fire amidst all the oil-slicked floodwaters. Not good. Streets are filled with stores that were looted. And people stuck in New Orleans are only going to get more desperate.

I've seen some powerfully sad things in the past two days, and I will write about them later. But I am very glad to be out of the city...

I'll still work, but I gotta tell you, I'm going to be actively looking for a job in another city. New Orleans is dead...

It's been a year and Dave shared some thoughts today:

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans one year ago today.

I have been working on this blog for two weeks. It is just so difficult to really talk about. Maybe I'm simply too emotional right now, lot of changes in my life over the past year. I have easily been able to answer the question, "What was it like during that Hurricane Katrina mess?" And I sort of gloss over it, give the same prepackaged story I've told a hundred times now.

But when I seriously reflect on that terrifying experience and try to describe my feelings, I choke up.

It haunts me one year later, though I truly am one of the lucky ones. None of my loved ones were among the nearly 3,000 who died. My house didn't flood. The only physical damage was my looted car. Later, I drove that car around for weeks without a rear windshield, and nobody took a second glance.

But try to imagine your life turned completely upside down, slowly at first so that you're fooled into thinking it's not really happening. "Well, yeah, the water's rising," we thought, "but it's going to stop soon, right?"

Then sheer chaos as a city descended into hell. It was torture to see New Orleans being torn apart. Terrifying to see tens of thousands of desperate Americans pleading for help.

I became so jaded about our government last year. The federal response was apalling.

It's easy to gloss over anniversary media coverage of an event that happened a year ago. I have goosebumps now reflecting on it from such a vantage point. (A year ago? Really? Holy crap.)

But the people of New Orleans, a truly unique American city and one of the country's treasures, still need help. Don't forget. Let's demand better from OUR government.

I can't add anything to that.


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