The essay below was derived from handwritten notes later transcribed into blog format and shared via LiveJournal. Without the blogosphere, I wouldn’t have been able to communicate with friends and family concerning my safety during one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history.
My uncle’s house has one TV and a computer only suited for dial-up speed. My family has been here, in Houston, since the Wednesday after Hurricane Katrina. During the week when my family is busy calling the American Red Cross for the billionth time trying to get emergency assistance, I do puzzles, huge puzzles. Sometimes I will just sit and build a puzzle from breakfast till dinner.
Most of the puzzles are of artwork by Thomas Kinkade, a never ending compilation of swirling rivers melting into pastel landscapes with golden fields and ‘happy trees.’ The puzzles were gag gifts from her former co-workers at her “Going Away” party when she retired. Giving her something suitable to do during her retirement, instead of watching soap operas and playing church bingo. I finished all them in a week, with my mother, father, and two brothers chipping in along the way. It turned into a small family ritual, that seemed to bring a sense of normalcy to our lives.
My aunt surprised me with a new one to complete after a trip to Walmart. “The Wizard of Oz,” a one-thousand piece puzzle, read the box. Damn, this’ll take a while. The artist’s interpretation seemed to mirror my life. Dorothy standing with her companions: Toto, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow bidding the Munchkins farewell as she embarks ‘down the Yellow Brick Road’ to the Emerald City in the distance. It seems only fitting that with my world in shambles, that I should be putting together an imaginary one.
It’s Monday, August 29th, approximately 1AM, and I’ve been updating everyone on my status–at times lying to the concerned and crest fallen. Most of my friends, my friend’s families, and basically anyone in their right mind, evacuated two days ago. They were ushered to the call of the interstate by the words of Mayor Ray Nagin and a “Mandatory Evacuation”. My family’s idea to vertically evacuate (to use the multiple floors in a hotel, or similar structure, as method to avoid flood waters) was met with disdain:
“Are they nuts? How could they choose to stay here with when the news is saying there’s going to be over twenty-five feet of water in the central business district alone?”
“I guess you’ll be sleeping with the fishes on Monday.”
“I hope you have a boat where you’re going.”
I’m inside the bathroom of our hotel room, the harsh halogens that leave the room feeling stark and antiseptic, scribing the day’s details into my journal trying not to disturb my brothers sleeping outside. My mother and father are in the next room over, fallen into a stress-induced slumber from packing. We’ve been encased in this sheetrock box for twelve hours and I’ve slowly begun to lose my sense of date and time.
I can still remember how bright and clear it was when we unloaded our cars. “The calm before the storm.” I never grasped that saying before today. My family fled every hurricane before this one. My mother, my two brothers, and me would venture off to Dallas for few days to have a mini-vacation while my dad stayed with whatever hotel property that he was working for at the time. There was always stories of what happened when you “stayed behind,” but they were always spoken of in hushed tones. To me, looting was just a word—a few letters in a dictionary.
I check the time on my cellphone again, and it’s already past midnight. All I can hear is the electric hum of the lights above me, even though I know the gales have hit 50mph by now. I’m expecting the first floor, and possibly the second floor, to going under. We’ll raid the mini-bars for food when the time comes. And though my feet are freezing, I’ll endure it, because we’ll lose the cold air once the power goes out.
I keep getting a feeling like I forgot something. That something more could’ve been done this afternoon than already has. I know it’s a futile feeling and all I have left is to accept our outcome. I’ve over packed because I don’t believe that we will be able to go back to our house in Metairie, LA. when the storm passes. I think we will be stuck in this hotel room, indefinitely.
I wake up at night, or day, (I can’t tell anymore) to the sound of the fire alarm and running water. It’s storm outside trying to get in, yet it seems impossible that there could be a fire with so much water raging just beyond the wall’s of our hotel room. After years of elementary school training to respond to the sound of an alarm, I get up and I open our door. Beyond the threshold, strobes flicker over a cascading waterfall, it’s beautiful. I stare at it for a few minutes before my brain comprehends that water is pouring down from the roof and out of the air vent in the ceiling of the hall. My dad strolls up with a huge black garbage to catch the falling water.
“Water is leaking into the elevator shaft and causing the fire alarm to malfunction. I’m going to go shut it off, go back to bed.”
I shut the door and try to lay back down. My dad, the “Chief” of the Omni Royal Crescent Hotel’s maintenance department, is “Manager on Duty” tonight. Earlier in the evening, I heard him pace in and out of my mother’s room. His hunter green polo shirt sweat stained, brown hair disheveled, and black pants matted with dirt. He reminds me of the horse from Animal Farm, believes that everything can be made better by working harder. But the worry has begun to show in the wrinkles above his brow line. There’s too many other employees and their families in the hotel, and not enough flashlights and batteries to go around. Though this shortage might prove inconsequential compared to when the food runs out.
It’s pitch black as I make my way down the hotel’s emergency stairs. The power has been out for a while now. My dad has dropped glow sticks on the landings to light the way for me and the other hotel guest. They’re pools of phosphorescent light in a pit of darkness. A pit that I’m forced to descend further and further into until I hit large door at the end that frees me.
The door enters into the tiny hotel lobby with its faux mantle and antiques. Thin plate glass doors and windows line the entrance, the only thing between us and the storm that rages outside. An audience comprised of the other guests and their families, has gathered to watch the spectacle that Mother Nature is making of herself. We stand in awe as real-life UFOs whirl down the street and crash into buildings. Some of us grew quiet as we look to the sky, and listen for the sound of tornadoes.
The sun is setting and the skies have cleared. My dad, two brothers, and myself emerge from the safety of the hotel to the rubble that is now New Orleans. My huge black camera swings from my neck as I snap shots of aftermath befitting an apocalypse film. The roads glitter with shards of broken glass as brick buildings have spilled their walls into the streets, engulfing cars in “No Parking” zones. It’s like someone dropped a house on all of New Orleans. We walk along the streetcar tracks taking everything in. There’s people everywhere taking it all in. The storm is over and Munchkins are celebrating.
My mother and I are yelling at each other again. We’ve been in the hotel for a day and a half now, and others have already moved on down the ‘yellow brick road.’ My mother believes that the water that’s been creeping steadily up Gravier St. is receding, that help is on the way.
“Witch Queen, witch queen, we all know.”
My mother’s favorite chant to say to me as I grew up. She’d say to admonish me for being stubborn and disobedient. (I don’t think she’d have ever anticipated me growing up to be Wiccan.) She threatened to banish me to the Superdome today.
“If you’re so desperate to leave, then go to the Superdome. They have buses there that’ll take you to Houston.” (My mother didn’t know what was happening there, but I think she was too shocked to apologize when she found out.)
I don’t care if it makes me “the big, bad witch,” but I don’t want to stay in a city destroyed, waiting for a salvation that’s never going to come. I’m a just witch, not a damned wizard.
It’s 3am, and my bath water dances with candle light. The power is still out and the A/C hasn’t been on the entire day. I’m hoping the water will cool me off enough to let me sleep. The looting started after the storm settled. They came in and stole all the booze from the restaurant downstairs that night. When my Dad, two brothers, and me went out yesterday to try to call my Grandparents in Reno, NV from a pay phone, it’d gotten worse. The hotel room’s curtains hold back the night, an indiscernible black void that I’m desperate to paint stars or a moon into. Looking into the abyss, I wonder how something so dark could be so hot. I know deep down that Milton was right, and somehow we’ve all slipped into hell.
I lie down in my clot next to the door, clutching my .12 gauge shotgun. My brothers sleeping in their beds. Despite being the middle child, I’ve been picked to defend my siblings. My little brother is seven years younger than me, and like a lot of boys, it’s difficult to get him to wash up. My mother says sometimes that he “stinks like a pup-dog.” My older brother is only one year my elder, but is all growl and no nip.
My dad is tinkering again with some electrical components when he jokingly tells my younger brother, “Get behind your sister if she starts shooting. She’s enthusiastic, but her aim needs work.”
I grew up around guns. As a child, my father taught me that guns were not toys. I was instructed that if I ever found one at home, or in the street, not to touch it. That guns are inanimate objects, and it’s the intentions of people that should worry you.
The tap water has ran out, and the flood water is rising. A man is passed out on the pavement outside the hotel, but when one of the hotel employees went to check on him, they came away in disgust and left him there.
“What’s wrong with him? Is he hurt?”
“No, he’s just dead drunk, that’s all.” The guy shakes his head and retreats back into the hotel.
I stand watch, as my family loads our cars up. A guy passes by with a large rolling garbage can full of designer sneakers, followed by others carrying similar spoils. My mother has finally come to grips that we can’t go home. That there’s no going back to Kansas from here.
People are passing in hoards on S. Peters like the way you see birds migrate when the seasons change. We drive out of the city on a siphoned tank of gas with only a few dollars to make it to Houston. Even when we arrive, I am still in survival mode. I refuse to let it affect me. It isn’t until my friend tells me that his sister had to cut all her hair off to make it out of New Orleans without being raped that I cry uncontrollably on an inflatable mattress in my Uncle’s den.
The pieces are coming together now. The mass of fractured cardboard cutouts are fitting together, taking shape, and becoming an entity of it’s own. I’m left with an image of a long journey forged by close hearts to a sacred place that they soon left behind.
My dad’s job wants him to go back. They’ve arranged for us to obtain papers that will allow us to bypass the military checkpoints and enter the city, so that he help get his sister hotel, the Omni Royal Orleans, online. We have no idea what kind of life we’re returning to, but we have to make the best of it.
My uncle, an ex-Marine who my dad used to claim was a werewolf, gives me a ride on his Harley to a used bookstore (complete with cat) and buys me several of the books in the series, so that I’ll have something to do in the days to come. My aunt frames the puzzle and gives it to me as a farewell gift. We’re back on the yellow brick road, to a place that’s been an underworld, and is now a militarized zone. In spite of it all, there’s no place like home.