Letter From New Orleans: Facing Two Storms

A reporter from The Times-Picayune in New Orleans reflects on the arrival of Hurricane Gustav almost exactly three years after the descent of the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina.

When the Dart Center asked me to share my thoughts on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught, I had one response:

“Can you give me time to get through the hurricane coming this way first?”

Aug. 29 is horrible enough already without another hurricane — in this case, Gustav — to contend with.

For those of us in New Orleans, Aug. 29 is our Pearl Harbor Day, our Sept. 11 — the day everything changed.

On that date in 2005, Katrina mauled New Orleans, triggering floods that submerged 80 percent of this low-lying city. New Orleans and its inhabitants were battered, physically and psychologically, and the wounds will linger for years.

No matter how much we think we might have progressed, every Aug. 29 forces us to confront and relive our Katrina memories and feel horrible and hollow all over again.

Though we reporters have tried to move beyond the Katrina horror stories of our friends, our families and our colleagues, we have no choice. Here’s why: Our job forces us to revisit the storm’s multifaceted impact constantly, asking questions as unsettling to us as to our invisible audience. Will the new levees hold? Will leaders be effective in the next crisis? Will the annual risk of such monster storms kill the city’s economy, because businesses will be loath to put employees in harm’s way? These are not abstract topics to us, because we live here, too.
As if it weren’t hard enough to deal with this annual anxiety, Hurricane Gustav came along this year, threatening this part of the country just days before Aug. 29. We had to face memories of the three-year-old trauma while worrying about the menace at hand, trying to prepare for it and hoping everyone would do better this time.

For many New Orleanians, the psychological circuits overloaded. Stress levels increased geometrically, and I can attest to that.

I’m usually a sound sleeper, but after a day of keeping track of Gustav – even before it entered the Caribbean Sea – I awoke, trembling, at 3:30 a.m. As long as that storm was on the loose, I started my mornings doing what I do every morning New Orleans faces the possibility of a weather attack: I got out of bed, fired up the computer and checked weather Web sites to see whether the danger had abated or whether we were just days away from obliteration.

In such situations, the Internet is a decidedly mixed blessing. While it offers more data than anyone could use or want, the excess of information causes us to obsess and overdose on it, sometimes to our own detriment.

Yet, like someone needing another hit of strong New Orleans coffee, we can’t help coming back for more, anxiously checking to see if the new update tells us we’re in the target area. The National Weather Service calls the potential strike zone the Cone of Uncertainty; we Katrina veterans at The Times-Picayune — a tough lot, given to gallows humor — call it the Cone of Death.

Which brings up an interesting moral point: While we watch the latest satellite imagery and ardently wish that every storm would go somewhere else, it means we’re actually rooting for it to lay waste to another city and untold thousands of people who live there.

For those of us who are still struggling to recover from Katrina’s devastation, we think we’ve earned the right to feel that way. But I digress.

With this jumble of thoughts, emotions and memories running around in the brain and bumping into each other, it’s tough to remain professional on the surface. Gustav came ashore about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans on Labor Day — three days after the anniversary.

Because the two storms were intertwined, we couldn’t help feeling like the Roman god Janus, whose two faces enabled him to look forward and backward at the same time.

We were working on stories getting ready for Gustav, using our own spare minutes to sneak a peek at weather Web sites and scramble to prepare for the storm ourselves: gassing up the car and investing in such necessities as duct tape, batteries, granola bars and bottled water.

Despite this flurry of activity, we couldn’t help thinking back to the disruption Katrina wrought in our city and in our lives.
On that awful morning, when Katrina roared ashore southeast of New Orleans as a Category 3 hurricane, I watched from the newspaper office’s third floor as the wind blew the rain sideways and bent what had been sturdy plate-glass windows into parabolas.

By mid-afternoon that day, the wind and rain had stopped, and we thought the worst was over. We were wrong. Colleagues who had headed into the city came back with stories of people standing on their roofs with water lapping at the eaves. Two reporters who had biked to Lake Pontchartrain came back with news that the levee alongside the 17th Street Canal, separating New Orleans from suburban Jefferson Parish, had been breached, and that water was pouring into the city. One of those men knew that his house in that neighborhood had drowned.

Our nightmare was just beginning.

Levees running alongside two other canals were breached, too, and 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater.

By the next morning, floodwater surrounded our newspaper’s headquarters, forcing us to evacuate in bright-blue delivery trucks while water lapped at the headlights. A brave group stayed behind to report first-hand the desperation of people who were stuck here and the failure of government at all levels, while the rest of us, many of whom had lost homes, headed to Baton Rouge for what would be a six-week exile before we could return to our battered city and, for many of us, our equally battered houses.

How could the prospect of going through all that again not be on our minds as Gustav bore down on us like a heat-seeking missile?

There’s nothing quite like a dark house — one where the shutters have been tied shut and plywood has been nailed onto the front door to protect its glass — to make you feel alone and utterly vulnerable, especially when hurricane-force winds scream around you.

For that reason, my wife didn’t stay. I had no choice; I knew I would have to work.

Shortly after she, our cats, our tenant and his cat and dog set off on a 19-hour trip to stay with friends in Alpharetta, Ga. — about twice the normal drive time — I was called in to the paper on Aug. 31, a day earlier than scheduled, to work. I was thrilled.

Does that reaction sound strange? It shouldn’t.

The camaraderie I found was wonderfully buoying, as I knew it would be. Besides the implicit support — not unlike soldiers in foxholes — most of us had been together in Baton Rouge, and we had stories to retell and memories to share. They were good stories, but they also reinforced a state of mind: We came through that calamity, and we’re going to come through this one just fine.

This being New Orleans, we also had food to share. I brought chocolate macaroons. Someone else had baked sinfully moist brownies. And one ambitious copy editor brought in what he called a hearty fish stew, although our Page 1 editor, who comes from a family of chefs, quickly corrected him, saying what he had produced was nothing less than a courtbouillon (pronounced coo-be-yahn, for all you non-Louisianans out there).

In other words, a fancy fish stew.

It’s somehow easier to face a crisis with a group. In the grim weeks after Katrina, I kept thinking that I would have fallen apart if I hadn’t had my colleagues — my friends — on hand.

This time around I felt the same way.

I still felt like that two days later — a day after we had lost our lights, air conditioning and computer and telephone systems, forcing us to crouch over our laptops wherever we could find light and a plug to the generator. After two days of heat and humidity in a work environment that resembled a cave, it was pretty funky, but the productivity was amazing to behold.

After a few more hours of camaraderie, I decided that I wanted to go home, figuring that, if nothing else, I’d have a battery-powered fan to stir the muggy air.

To my surprise and delight, I found that our electricity had come back on. I was so happy I did two loads of laundry.

Now I feel safe — at least until the next storm threat comes along.