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Return to the Ninth Ward

Watching the Levee Crash

by T.R. JOHNSON

I left New Orleans about 48 hours before Katrina made land. I had never evacuated before, ignoring the call to split the previous fall (Ivan) and the back to back alarms on consecutive Thursdays two years before (Isadore and Lily). But the day before Ivan hit had been an eery, deeply unsettling one, even though not a single drop of rain had fallen on New Orleans — I had heard rumors of the mayor ordering fifty-thousand body-bags, and from my balcony, I watched strange-looking tropical birds not from Louisiana rocketing along at a great height without moving their wings, obviously riding an air-current and apparently having done so for perhaps hundreds of miles. That had been creepy. But, honestly, I’d lived in New Orleans, at that point, for five years, and part of adjusting to life there means that, yeah, you’re gonna have to face down some creepy weirdness from time to time, and you’re occasionally gonna hear extravagant tales that give you an icy feeling all the way down. You just keep drinking and digging the music and, soon enough, the bad vibe switches to a happy one. That was how I experienced Ivan in the autumn of 04.

The full, head-on strength of the storm ultimately decimated a piece of the Florida panhandle, and then there I sat for a week, all by myself in my mostly empty neighborhood, waiting for the school where I teach to reopen and all my friends to return. That had been god-awfully boring. So I resolved that the next time my school shut down for a few days, I would simply take the opportunity to drive back to my hometown, Louisville, to hang with family and friends.

I had been watching Katrina updates on the local news in New Orleans during the preceding week (Aug 22nd to Aug 26th), mostly out of habit. The local news was always a treat in New Orleans, and late August a particularly colorful season for followers of the daily crime report. This is how I became aware of the storm – just tuning into the 5:00 broadcast on ABC-26 to see what sorts of cops’n’robbers action had been happening around town and to hear whether meteorologist Bruce Katz could promise any chance of a cool breeze on the horizon.

Katrina had rolled over south Florida as a tropical storm and then headed into the very warm waters of the gulf, and Bruce Katz kept saying that this or that front would force it directly north into the Florida panhandle. But the front that was supposed to push it east of New Orleans kept getting delayed, and Katrina kept drifting further and further out into the gulf. The more it drifted to the west, the worse it looked – not only was it gaining strength but it was headed for poor, chaotic, crazy-assed New Orleans. Ugh.

On Friday evening, I was bone-tired from a week-long meeting that would launch the new semester, and so, half-asleep, I kicked back to take in the 5:00 news. Right away, I saw that Katrina might hit very close to New Orleans within a few days. Figured I’d better keep pretty close tabs to see where this thing was going. It was definitely getting strong. I got up off the couch, lumbered out of my house and headed down to the Sugar Park Tavern, about ten blocks east of my house in the ninth ward, maybe three blocks from the now legendary, industrial canal. There was hardly anybody around. Dog days of summer. Nobody wanting to go out. Josh behind the bar with his great tattoos and carefully oiled coiffure, perfect retro of the archetypal 50s greaser; and my pal Jennifer — skinny, short, wired, with rich black skin and big bright eyes, a poet, a sweetheart, and a regular at the Sugar Park Tavern. She was having a few pilsners and scratching away at the crossword puzzle in that morning’s Times-Picayune. Jennifer told me that, at 3:00 that afternoon, just a few hours ago, a couple of thugs had robbed Jimmy’s grocery store right there at the corner of France and Dauphine, about fifteen yards from the barstool where I sat. Shit, said I, its that time of year. The bad boys get antsy in the doldrums. I got into the pizza I’d ordered, gave some to Jennifer, talked about nothing for an hour or so. I remember saying, "Man, you been watching this storm out in the gulf?" And she said "wha." I said, "yeah, check the news before you go to bed tonight – probably nothing, but maybe not." Just a random turn in a casual string of random turns. Idle, lazy chit-chat on a sweltering Friday twilight in the ninth ward, same as ten-thousand others. I could just as easily have forgotten to mention it to her. I’m realizing now that, since that night, I haven’t heard a word from her or about her. My eyes well.

I went to bed early that night, then got up around 7:00 on Saturday morning and flipped on the news. Well, fuck. They had ordered a mandatory evacuation for Saint Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish, and, since the former is about three or four miles east of my house, I figured they’d be urging people out of Orleans Parish within a few hours. I called some friends, woke them up, told them to turn on the news. This was the first they’d heard of the storm. They had evacuated for Ivan last fall and vowed they would never, ever, under any circumstances, evacuate again: it had taken them thirty hours to drive to Houston, a trip that usually takes less than six hours. I said, "Look, I’m either leaving right now or not at all – cos I’m not spending the rest of the weekend before the semester starts sitting on I-10." They were catching a plane anyway that morning to visit family, a trip planned a few a weeks ago, so I said ‘talk to you soon’ and hit the road with a toothbrush, an Ipod, and a spare shirt. Figured I’d be back in town by Tuesday evening to do my radio show and prep the first day of class, which would have been Wednesday, the 31st of August.

As I closed the door to my house, I glanced over my shoulder at my cat, who was staring intently at me. I didn’t consider loading her into the car – I was that sure this was another false alarm. I had put a little dry food in her bowl and, with an odd premonition, torn open the sack and set it next to her bowl.

Twelve hours later, I was standing in my brother’s living room in Louisville, staring at CNN. I would stand there, staring at CNN, for about the next ten days.

The sickening approach, the apparently miraculous, last-minute jag to the east, the celebrations of Monday evening, then the water rising fast on camera on Tuesday morning, and then the swirling hell blasting through the TV screen til Sunday, when the National Guard finally showed up and locked the whole town down.

That’s when I started plotting how I would return to get my cat. I made plans and changed them several times, trying to coordinate with friends to caravan down there together. Finally, after a half-dozen false-starts and maddening reversals, I refused to tinker any longer with my plan.

I left Louisville around 11:00pm on Tuesday, September 13th, and I drove all night with a buddy of mine — the idea being that we’d arrive at the city in mid-morning, after the curfew was lifted, and then have all day to check out the house and the neighborhood etc. and take care of whatever repairs might be necessary on my pad. That buddy of mine is a very experienced carpenter and a totally streetwise hepcat from L’ville. Nothing the police or the thugs could offer would really rattle him much, and together, we felt ready to handle whatever would happen. I knew that the floodwaters from Lake Ponchartrain had rolled some forty blocks or so toward my house, but that they had stopped about two blocks shy of my street. On the other side of my house, only two blocks further forward, is the Mississippi River. So, while the dry part of New Orleans in my end of town was, at one point, only four blocks wide, I knew that my house was in the middle of that four block stretch. And I had seen an aerial shot of my house on-line, and there didn’t appear to be any roof damage.

But the cat was inside. And she was surely running out of food. I also wanted to get some clothes and some important insurance and financial records, plus my tenor sax. My buddy had plans to see The White Stripes at the Louisville Palace that night, but we decided that after the show, we’d go.

We drove down through Memphis to Jackson and from there down to Hammond. We went through three checkpoints — at the first, a Louisiana state trooper began our conversation by saying "What ya got for me?" Was he explicitly requesting a bribe? Sounded like it. Or was he setting me up to bust me? I chose not to take the bait, and so he told me I had to exit and the highway and couldn’t come in via I-10. He directed us out to Laplace, where we would pick up Highway 61 and try to come in that way.

About halfway into town on Highway 61, an NOPD officer told us we couldn’t come in and told us to just go back whereever we came from. This was checkpoint #2. So we turned around, drove back through traffic about a mile, then got sufficiently pissed off to say ‘fuck this’, whipped another u-turn and nosed back into line to try the same checkpoint a second time. I put on a hat and took off my sunglasses to make myself look a little different. A comedy of desperation. Sure enough, the second time, we sailed through just fine. They just waved us through. We felt a certain giddy elation, but, too, I think we both felt a little worried about how much crazier the chaos up ahead might be.

We followed Airline Drive (Hwy-61) all the way in, but it was blocked off about a few miles before The Rock’n’Bowl. We were routed onto a detour through those Metairie neighborhoods to the right of Airline Drive, and then we popped up on Causeway Boulevard, somehow, so we followed that over to Jefferson Highway, and used that to come into uptown. Right at the parish line, we came upon a sandbag levee — but it had been breached by big military trucks (as we pulled up, another big green humvee was clanking over it, and it looked like there had been a succession) so I figured I might as well drive over it too. There were a bunch of military guys with machine guns standing around, but they didn’t appear to pay any attention to us at all. So, I put my VW-Jetta in first gear and varoomed it up into the sand, and sure enough, a moment later I bumped down into Orleans Parish.

At first, I had no idea where I was. I didn’t have the slightest idea. So I pulled up under a street sign — when I saw that it said "Claiborne Ave," my heart sank. I was out on Claiborne, right alongside the Hollygrove neighborhood, where a good pal of mine had lived for the last four or five years, and I didn’t even recognize it. After I’d cruised down Claiborne on the wrong side of the neutral ground for several blocks and finally checked a street sign — imagine what it felt like to realize this was a street I’d driven down countless times and as recently as a few weeks ago, but that this morning I couldn’t even recognize.

There was so much debris everywhere and such a thick layer of dried mud about five feet high on every vertical surface, that I couldn’t really be sure where I was — didn’t even realize I had been driving on the wrong side of the neutral ground — til I stopped and read the street sign. This was when I first realized how bad it was.

The next thing I noticed was that none of the trees had any leaves. They were just stark, black, and bare — utterly unnatural on this blazing hot September morning. Apparently, all the leaves had been stripped away by the wind. There was no shade. Just dried mud and blinding sun. And then I noticed the stink.

I turned right off Claiborne and headed down Carrollton toward the river to pick up Tchoupitoulas and follow that downtown. Within a few blocks, I had to quit Carrollton, cos a huge live oak had fallen across the road and was blocking it. So I took a right and used Dante or Dublin or one of those to get over to Tchoupitoulas. The road was caked with dried mud, so much so that you couldn’t really distinguish the street from the lawns. There had obviously been a massive flash-flood through here — the little canal at the parish line had become a roaring river that cascaded east, a kind of miniature uptown version of what had happened at the industrial canal down there by Poland Ave. Tree limbs and pieces of rooftop everywhere, garages collapsed, boats and pieces of boats just stranded wherever they had been when the waters rolled back. Total mess. Impossible to imagine anyone surviving who had been here when this shit happened, equally impossible to believe normal life will someday resume here.

Once I got within two or three blocks of the river levee, the mess lessened considerably. I then picked up River Road, used that to get down to Magazine, then cut out Calhoun to Tchoupitoulas for the run downtown.

There were absolutely no human beings anywhere — none — not one. The desolation was absolute. Not a single soul anywhere, nowhere, no one. Unspeakably eery. I felt completely creeped out, completely ashamed, like I was treading on territory that was forbidden by cosmic edict. I drove down Tchoupitoulas, and after a while, I just stopped glancing down those side streets that run perpendicular to the river, cos it just freaked me out too much to look down them and see not a single creature moving.

There was heavy debris down those side streets, but Tchoupitoulas was clear. So we zoomed down it. Blazing hot sun, big clear blue sky. And no one around. Empty.

We got to the CBD, and some of the streets were blocked off with piles of rubble, so, as luck would have it, we ended up having no choice but to drive right past the Convention Center. The goddamned Convention Center.

The odor was extremely intense, overwhelming — sour-sweet, utterly repulsive, making a thin hum of nausea run from the pit of my gut up through my throat. We had picked up that smell uptown, but it was far worse in the CBD, and it stayed bad as we moved down Decatur toward the Bywater. At Canal Street, there was a huge gaggle of media trucks huddled together on the neutral ground, their antennae and satellite dishes extended high in the air and pointing at odd angles.

In the parking lot of Tower Records, there was another media village, and what looked like food booths from jazz fest. A bunch of soldiers around. Red berets, machine guns, big trucks. Definitely wanted to avoid them.

We came down Chartres into the Bywater — the fires all along the wharves there were still smoldering and stinking like all hell. Bad, burning chemical smell. We had shitty headaches from it right away that stayed with us for about twenty four hours. The collapsed, smoking warehouses and wharves stretched for block upon block. The top half of one of those old brick warehouses that rises on the bank of the river was shorn off – looked like a photo from WWII.

Driving into the Bywater, we knew we had reached what was the end of the line, and, for that matter, the edge of the world. Beyond Poland street, there was nothing: no lower 9th Ward, no Araby, no Chalmette, no Waveland, no Bay Saint Louis, no Pass Christian, no Gulfport, no Biloxi, nothing til you got to the other side of Mobile, Alabama. That’s a long way. And nothing between there and here but utter devastation.

I pulled off Chartres going the wrong way on Clouet to get over to my house. I pulled up in front of my house and parked. The house across the street where the old drunk lived had had really bad damage from both wind and fire. My house had a big red X painted on the front, and each corner of the X had a tidbit of info: zero dead, zero alive, Sept 6, TX-ST. That last bit, I think, meant that Texas state troopers had been to my house. They had checked it on September 6, exactly one week after the levees had broken.

We went inside and saw, first, that several of my paintings had been knocked off the wall, presumably when wind shook the house. The cat was alive, but very skinny and schizzed out. I opened a can of food for her and, after a while, she mellowed out and let me hold her. The palm tree in the little patio out back was snapped in half, and the railing around my upstairs balcony torn off. Some shingles had been peeled off the roof, which let rainwater mark up the ceiling. But other than that, no real damage.

We walked around the neighborhood — total silence, total emptiness. There turned out to be about fifty soldiers camping in the warehouse by the railroad tracks. Occasionally, a helicopter would go shuddering by overhead.

We went down to the quarter. Molly’s was open, but dark and hot. Nothing else was open. They had Abita in big coolers, a bunch of CNN war-correspondent types crowding around, swigging beer and eating bags of food the soldiers were passing out. We stayed there an hour or two then walked back to my house. The rule was that anyone who was on the street after 6:00pm would be taken to the Greyhound Station and held over night there — they were using that and the Amtrak station as make-shift prisons — then released in the morning. They were calling the whole compound "Camp Greyhound." Needless to say, we wanted no part of that. So we walked back to my house around 4:30 that afternoon, dead tired from all the shock and the all-night drive.

There were barricades up around my immediate few blocks that said, in hand-lettering in magic-marker on cardboard — "chemical spill — extremely dangerous — do not enter." But we said hell-with-it and walked right in. We had no other option — too tired to drive out, too much still to organize at my house, plus we saw soldiers walking through the same barricaded area. So we went back to my pad. My buddy fell asleep on the living room couch right away, but I sat up til maybe 8:30 that night. We had all the windows open upstairs cos the heat was so awful and there was no escaping the stink anyway. I didn’t dare light a candle, cos I was afraid if any soldiers saw light coming from inside my house, they’d arrest us — you were not even supposed to be in the city after dark, not even to stretch out in your own bed. So, I covered myself with bugspray cos rumors were going around at Molly’s that the mosquitoes were full of diptheria and typhoid and all that other exotic 19th century death… and just laid back to listen.

And that’s what really weirded me out the most — the silence. I lay in bed, listening to my city, and hearing literally, absolutely nothing. Not a sound. The silence was the silence of the bottom of a cave. Nothing moving, nothing even breathing. I’ll never forget it. I think I’ll hear it whenever I lay down in that room again.

We drove back to Louisville at dawn the next morning with my cat, my tenor, some clothes, and some books. Here I’ll sit for at least a few more weeks.

I imagine I’ll be living at my place on Royal again by the end of October — though, on the other hand, that seems both unrealistic and undesirable. Who knows?

T.R. JOHNSON lives in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where he teaches and writes. He hosts a radio program at WWOZ-FM. He can be reached at: trjofno@hotmail.com

CLARIFICATION

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH

We published an article entitled "A Saudiless Arabia" by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the "Article"), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the "Website").

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005