In 2015, I wrote the article below on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina as an hourly journey of the night before landfall and remembrances of what many of us in New Orleans were going through.
Now that it is four years later (2019) I find that many have completely forgotten. Even though there have been tragic storms in the past few years with thousands of deaths, we still choose to ignore what is right before our eyes.
But a lot can in 14 years.
Even though the threat of Climate Change has been upon us for many years, I think I can say that 2018 was the first year that its really struck home to people. Its no longer just a talking point between the left and right. Its real. From the fires in California, to the heat in the Europe, to the melting ice in the Arctic, things are changing and will continue to do so. I cannot help but think that there may come a time when I am on the other side of this calamity, where everything has changed. Ours coasts are gone. Many of our cities have vanished and we are either shivering or melting in a world that humanity made.
Where will you be?
The following links are to three art series created in remembrance of Hurricane Katrina.
THE KATRINA PORTRAITS - THE LAND
THE KATRINA PORTRAITS - THE FACES
THE KATRINA PORTRAITS - THE PAINTINGS
THE HOURLY LOG
Starting at 7pm Central Time I will be posting photos in the Katrina Portrait series every 15 minutes on Twitter and Google+. I will keep the candles lit outside the studio on the Hurricane Shrine during these twelve hours as well as twelve hours of Mardi Gras music.
Local New Orleans folk are invited to visit the shrine tonight and the studio in the twelve hours leading up to landfall of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. I will keep vigil in those 12 hours and share my personal thoughts here in an hourly log.
Check back and share your own thoughts here throughout the night.
Where was I 10 years ago?
I was dead tired. I remember that much. My roomate (and best friend) and I were some of the few who seemed to take the storm warning seriously. We took the mandate to evacuate seriously. In the 24 hours prior to leaving the city we packed our second floor apartment up to ride out the storm in our absence. We taped the windows. We moved the furniture to the center of the rooms, we taped shut the kitchen cabinets so dishes and glasses would not come cascading out. We took it seriously.
In our small Prius we packed the things that were most precious to us including two terrified cats. And we left. But we didn't leave the city. We went to work. We both worked in the same hotel on third shift and we worked our shift first before leaving, spelling each other off through the night to give short sleep breaks before departure at 6am
We got through the restless night. At one point I remember standing out watching partiers heading towards Bourbon Street and thinking "are these people blind to whats happening? Can't they feel it in the air?"
So at 6am we left our city of New Orleans. Well, we attempted to leave our city. Within moments it was evident that this was not going to be any quick departure.
I'd never seen anything like it. The highway was not only at a stop, it was in total gridlock. Barely anything was moving up there. We would inch along at a foot or so every ten minutes while the clock ticked away. Its the only time in my life where I literally rear ended a dozen people because I kept falling asleep at the wheel. No one complained. I wasn't moving fast enough to cause even the slightest damage.
And here we sat, not for an hour, or several hours, but for 12 hours straight, inching along. In 12 hours we covered 8 miles to finally reach the 27 mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain.
But here was the dilemma. The skies were already dark. The storm had already begun to creep up on us...
The Hurricane Shrine has been moved out to the front of the studio and will remain for the next 12 hours. Please feel free to stop by and pay your respects between now and 7am on Saturday morning.
1915 4th Street
New Orleans, Louisiana
So here was the dilemma. The bridge is 27 miles across and the trailing edge of the storm was already coming in. If they closed the bridge before we could get to it, we were literally screwed. We'd never make it out in time.
So there were tense hours as we crept closer and closer to our escape. Mind you neither of us had had a bathroom break or even been out of the car in 12 hours. Our nerves were frayed and our senses blurring. All we could see were those mounting storm clouds in the distance and the spatterings of rain that were becoming more and more constant.
When we reached the bridge finally we nearly cried.
I'd like to say things changed then and we made a fast escape but even though we made the bridge the traffic continued its slow creep and that 27 miles were the longest of our lives as we watched the waters of Lake Pontchartrain restlessly move around us.
But we did eventually make it across but we did so on fumes. Our gas was about to run out and we were forced off the highway to search for a gas station that might still be open in an area that was mostly abandoned at this point.
When we finally found gas at a station with a hundred other cars, we took turns sleeping for five minute stretches until it was our turn to gas up....
Eventually, 13 hours or so after departing, we finally made it clear of the danger zone. Buffeted by heavy winds and torrential rains we made our way another 7 hours until we arrived in Houston, which was our predetermined shelter point. I can honestly say I'd never been more tired in my life than when I finally laid my head down to sleep.
The following days are still a bit of a blur. With nothing to do but watch as the city devolved into chaos, all we could do was pace and wait. It was obvious after several days of this that we were NOT going home. At least not in the near future.
We made the hard decision that we could do little by remaining in Houston. With sad goodbyes to our hosts, we reloaded the car and made our way north. We both had family in the midwest so we headed toward Chicago, weary and sad.
But before we left Houston we made one stop at a hardware store where we bought a roll of duck tape. Using strips of it we placed a simple message on the back window of the car.
"WE WILL REBUILD"
It was all that was needed. The fact that we had a Louisiana license plate spoke everything we could not say to the cars passing us.
Now I was out on the highway heading from DC to California for 911. I remember the fear of that day well. But there was not much compassion. No one was worried about anyone else on that day only getting under cover. But this day was different. Strangers would honk at us and wave. People would try to hand us money each time we stopped for a break. Truckers would make space for us on the road.
And weren't alone. There weren't just a few cars with refugees on the road, there were dozens. In fact at one point there was nothing but Louisiana cars around us. It was surreal to say the least...
Chicago was even more unreal. It didn't feel like we were in our own country. It felt like we'd come from some strange foreign third world. Everyone treated us with care and an attitude that you often see when someone dies and they treat the next of kin like they were the ones that died instead.
There was a huge Red Cross station set up for all of us who'd made it that far. There was every service imaginable available to us. I'd broken my glasses the night before the storm trying to load the car, knocking them from my face. They made sure I had them replaced.
When we'd left we had only planned to be gone a few days so we were woefully unprepared for the fact that it was already turning cold up north. We never thought to pack warm clothing. We left with enough clothes to keep us warm. Others donated more in the coming days.
But we were lost in Chicago. All we seemed to be able to do was watch the internet broadcasts coming out of the city and nearby communities and watch as it fell apart. We couldn't seem to stop ourselves. Others told us that we should stop watching. But it wasn't their home being destroyed.
Finally we tore ourselves away. We went north to Michigan and pitched a tent in trees near the shores of Lake Michigan and there we stayed for a week with nothing but quiet and the radio in the car to keep us updated. And it helped.
We felt stronger when we returned to Chicago and we'd resolved ourselves to returning at the earliest opportunity. We would go home.
Of course no one wanted us to leave. Family and friends both told us to stay in the midwest where it was safe. Everything we wanted was there for us including jobs for us both if we wished them.
But all we wanted to do was go home. And eventually we did. In fact we were some of the first few back in the city. The hotel we had both worked for had been rented out exclusively to FEMA but it needed to be staffed and it needed to be cleaned before they arrived. So when word came, we were ready and we departed for home.
I'd like to say the trip was easy coming back, but it was far from that because of another little storm called Rita which many forget followed Katrina a short time later. While no longer a hurricane, Rita had happily wound its way up the center of the country and was now pouring torrential rains across most of the route we would have taken home.
So we detoured about 400 miles out of our way to come around her in our race for home.
I can't say it was the saddest day of my life when we arrived. It was too surreal for that. We'd been told to expect road blocks as we approached the city and that we had to show passes that authorized us to return.
It was all smoke and mirrors. The roads were nearly empty except for military transports. There were no road blocks, no questions, no security rimming the city. There was just road.
Coming back across the 27 mile bridge we could see the city skyline from far away. It was a bright sunny day, but there was a pall of smoke over the city still where some of the fires still smoldered. And there were helicopters. Lots and lots of helicopters. They dotted the skyline like a swarm of locusts. Big helicopters, small helicopters, huge military transports. They were everywhere. And we were home.
Leaving the bridge we made our way towards home by some of the few roads open and able to support traffic. We'd been ordered to go directly to the hotel where we would stay, but when we realized there were no police and very few military that were even paying attention to us, we went home.
Magazine street where our apartment was, lay littered with debris. While the flood waters had not reached this far uptown, the damage was immense. Trees and power lines were down, trash was everywhere and there was a smell like none I'd ever smelled in my life. I won't try to describe it because I am not sure there are words.
The street was dead. Nothing moved. Just us. We couldn't stay. There was no power, no food, no water. So we checked to see if we had anything left (which we did) and then made our way to the hotel where we would remain for several weeks while the cleanup began.
The thing I mostly remember about those following weeks was the way that the whole city felt like it was on the edge of time. There was no electricity for quite a few days. We did everything by candle and battery. The only hot food was from a few hardy bars in the French Quarter who had brought outdoor grills onto the streets. You could get a decent hamburger at least but little else except cold food. Oh and liquor. There was plenty of that!
When the power did eventually come back on, it was in isolated pockets. I remember standing on Rampart Street out in front of the hotel one night and the world literally ended a few blocks away. There was nothing beyond it. Not a single light. It was like the world dropped away and if you walked past the last street light you might not return.
There was a curfew in effect. At night no one stirred unless they were authorized to do so. The few bars open stayed open all night but had a closed door policy. If you went in before dark you stayed and drank till dawn. Many took advantage of that.
When eventually we were allowed to go home and the power had slowly been restored, it was too a sad place. Hardly anyone was back yet and the few who were stayed pretty isolated from each other.
The smell remained for a year.
So here ten years later we remain. We are alive and we are thriving again and as I sit here at 4 in the morning with the door open to the night air, I am reminded of those days just before the storm.
There is another storm out there tonight. Not as deadly (at least not at this time). Her name is Erika. But just like those days a decade ago, there is a strange coolness in the air that is unseasonable for this time of the year. We aren't suppose to have cooler weather here. Its unnatural. But the same happened prior to Katrina, and while the circumstances are different now we can't help but be a bit apprehensive this night.