Seventeen years ago today, August 29, 2005—also a Monday—Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi, changing a multitude of lives forever. The storm actually made landfall twice. The first time, it hit Grand Isle, Louisiana, at approximately 7 a.m. Then Katrina bounced back into the Gulf and moved east, making landfall a second time at the mouth of the Pearl River (the border between Louisiana and Mississippi) at approximately 11 a.m. With 108 billion dollars in damages, Katrina was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. It left thousands homeless and 1,245 lives were lost.
This is the final chapter of an excerpt from the unpublished novel Infinite Tenderness, which began its Rainshadow Journal run in April. Its author Mark Clemens, one of the Journal’s founding members, worked on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, September and October 2005. Links to the previous chapters are at the end of this chapter and listed on the lower right side of Rainshadow’s home page.
Over and Out
Monday, August 29, 2005
7:12 a.m./central time
Hershel blinked the sweat out of his eyes and focused on holding up his forearm. He looked out the door and then at the people around the room. There were eighteen of them—men and women, cops and EMTs and volunteers—who had reported to the county’s Emergency Operations Center, EOC for short, in Bay St. Louis overnight and were now about to leave.
As happened every other minute since his son had run away the previous week, Hershel thought of Landon. It wasn’t the constant question: Where was he? Or another flurry of gut-wrenching worry: Was he hurt? Was he safe? Was he alive? Nor was it fear on the verge of despair: Was he dead? It was just a thought of Landon, a vision of his face that always brought on a feeling of reassurance.
The EOC had reached Hershel a few minutes after 3 a.m., just after he walked into the din of the Red Rooster’s herd of partying patrons, oblivious to Katrina or yelling bring her on. Hershel hadn’t known if he was going to make it to the tavern, even though Ansley was less than ten miles away. Shortly after he left Toucan Harry’s, he came to a long stretch of the road covered with coursing water and the Datsun had almost stalled before he made it through by following the pickup’s bow wave between the hidden ditches. Closer to Waveland and the Rooster, the way had been blocked by trees and small sheds and one little two-wheeled trailer he managed to move and drive around.
Water splashed on the underside of his elbow and Hershel lifted his forearm higher. He rested the plastic bag around his neck with his cell phone up on his shoulder. In the gray light of early dawn outside the door, he could see the flooded parking lot and Federal Street beyond it with abandoned cars here and there, water halfway up their doors.
The County EOC was located in a concrete block building in the first block of Main Street coming off the shore—virtually on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico. They were gathered in an equipment room that opened to the outside through the EOC’s back door. Bix Bulino, the county’s emergency manager, had gathered his team in the dim lit room minutes ago, then ordered the door opened. They watched as the gray surge poured in, brown with sand and a thick scum of jetsam that climbed swiftly up calves and thighs to where it was now—waist or chest high, depending on your height. The surge had slowed down now but continued to rise inch by inch. Except for the sound of water gurgling in the door and the outside sounds of screaming wind and driving rain, the room was absolutely quiet.
When the EOC call came, Hershel had answered and covered one ear to muffle the rollicking chorus of the Roosterites singing along with the J. Geils Band. He recognized the caller’s voice—a woman, another EOC volunteer like himself—but couldn’t see her face. She had said he was needed in the EOC and asked how soon he could report. Hershel said right now, but it might take 20 or 30 minutes. They hung up and he worked his way through the sweaty crowd toward the door. He came up on a couple who were also leaving and the woman turned to him. It was Trudy with a big galoot Hershel barely knew, Rob or Ray someone. She stepped out of the man’s embrace to give Hershel a hug and he hugged back.
“Leavin’ so soon?” Trudy said.
“Heading into the County EOC,” Hershel said, watching her watch him.
“The weather guys never get it right,” she said, laughing. “Y’all gonna end up sittin’ in the EOC bored out of your gourds.”
“Be fine by me.”
“I heard about Landon,” she said. The laugh lines around her eyes softened.
“Yeah. We’re still looking. Now things are going to be all FUBAR.”
“You think he’s around here?” Trudy said.
“Not sure where Landon’s gone to this time. He might be around Chalmette, but Dewey left on the train Saturday with her dad and family. Then again, he might be over here.”
“I keep an eye out for him.”
“Thanks Trudy. You know Landon likes you.”
Trudy laughed. “Landon flirts with me. Real shy, but that’s what he’s doing.”
Wind and rain blew in as Trudy’s man opened the door and they raced through the parking lot to a red Torino. The guy held Trudy up against the wind as he opened the door and when they both leaned back, the wind bent the door wide on its hinges. Trudy slid into the car and waved at Hershel. Back in the Rooster, “Brandy” started blaring out of the juke box and he waved back. He waited till the Torino pulled out of the lot and made his own break for the Datsun. Once in the driver’s seat, he let the rain drip off and looked at his watch: 3:12.
After making it to the EOC, Hershel coordinated with EMT individuals and teams by phone and text as to their readiness and availability. As a commercial diver, he also coordinated with those resources. Many of the responders he talked to were already on the job or heading out. He kept at it for two going on three hours, sweating and chugging bottled water, elbow to elbow with other EOC staffers. Built to hold a half dozen staff, the operations room of the EOC was jammed with bodies. Bulino was glued to his desk, pushing them all to keep going, to stay on it, the hard part was yet to come.
Around 6 a.m., the EOC’s back-up generator went AWOL. The phones were still working and some staffers had laptops running on battery, and they continued working by candlelight and battery lamps. The generator had worked like a champ after the regular power went out around 10 p.m. the night before, but an assistant manager announced it had been overcome by rising waters from the surge.
Surge? The word passed from person to person and then the EOC settled into a somber silence. Everyone knew the surge was going to be part of this story, but the generator on its elevated pad had been considered out of reach. If the surge had knocked out the generator . . .
Around 7 a.m., Bix Bulino shut down operations and gathered the EOC staff in the little room by the back door. Then two staffers let the door open slowly until the surge forced it open all the way. The EOC staff was going out the door soon, headed for where nobody knew. No relief was coming—they knew that. They would swim for it and hope for the best.
Someone hung a Sharpie over Hershel’s shoulder and he took it, said thanks without looking. He uncapped the heavy black pen and carefully lettered his Social Security number on his forearm. Then he passed the Sharpie to Nickie Bates on his right.
Some staff members had already swum out the door through the water gushing in. Hershel had moments to go when he felt a vibration on his chest and pulled his cell phone out of the baggie just as it rang again. He answered and heard “Hershel?” and started to say Dewey’s name but all he got out was a ragged half yell—“Dew—” and she was gone and he yelled “—wey, goddammit.” He saw Dewey’s lips: Hershel? She was so far away. He punched her number on his screen to dial back but could not get a signal.
Bix Bulino was at the back of the room with the Sharpie, working on his arm. Hershel moved up as staffers fought their way out the door, flailing away to escape into the surge racing by on Main Street. With a hand on Nickie’s back, Hershel steadied him as he went out the door. Hershel was next to go, then Bix would be last. He saw Bix grab his clipboard box and wade toward the door in the chest-deep water. Hershel turned back to the street and pulled himself around the door frame and out.
Out on Main Street something was wailing in the wind, something unholy in the dim, drowned daylight waiting to kill them one by one. The surge whipped by Hershel fast as whitewater rapids. In front of him, Nickie’s head bobbed along in the current behind the ragged line of other staffers. The surge swept them into town like so many field mice.
Morning Shows Us Where We Are
Monday, August 29, 2005
6:02 a.m./mountain time
Home. Dewey smiled and looked around at all of them gathered in Mack and Leola’s living room to watch the news. It was strange and new, but it felt like home. Family close to each other in a warm, safe place in Fountain, Colorado, no matter it wasn’t New Orleans. In Chalmette, home was Landon, that is, home was Dewey’s apartment on Evangeline with Landon there.
Everyone knew the news would not be good, but then, there wasn’t much of it yet. The storm was still too strong for news crews to get out and start reporting damages. The station went to commercial and they all sat around yawning and rubbing their eyes.
Daddy Royal was in Mack’s recliner, had it just where he wanted it, front and center for the hurricane coverage. Dewey was on the floor beside him and Mack in a chair on the other side. Dewey’s brothers Melvin and Junior were on the couch with Ricardo. Leola and Paulette were in the kitchen making breakfast, and the kids—Tonia, Aldrich and Bettina—were running from the living room up the stairs and down to the kitchen, too full of bees to sit. The adults had cups of coffee warm in their hands, and Leola had just hollered that breakfast was on the way, just be patient.
Dewey set the newspaper aside to watch Daddy Royal, who was struggling to tie his shoes. The left shoelace was always the tough one, Dewey knew. This morning—for whatever reason—Daddy Royal had chosen to tie the left shoelace first. He pulled his left leg up and grabbed his left shoe. Belly pressing on his thigh, he held his breath and fumbled with the unseen lace ends. No. He swore and hoisted his left foot closer. Grunting, he reached for the offending shoelace, pulled both ends out straight and gave up. He fell back in the recliner and sighed, arms slumped on its arms.
“Here,” Dewey said. She hopped up and snugged a knot down on his left shoe and moved on to the right. “There,” she said, finishing up with a pat on his knee.
“You my favorite daughter,” Royal said.
“Smart man, saying that with Leola and Paulette in the kitchen,” Dewey said. They laughed and then Dewey started to untie his shoes again. He tried to pull back, but she spread the laces and pulled the shoes off.
“Daddy, Daddy,” she said. “I packed those nice slippers for you.”
“My moccasins?” Royal said.
“Moccasins, slippers, I packed ‘em. Let’s put those on.”
Dewey walked to the closet under the stairs where Mack and the men had stored their luggage and found Daddy’s suitcase. No—she grabbed his Green Wave gym bag—she’d put his moccasin slippers in there. She pulled the moccasins up from the bottom of the bag and held them to her cheeks. Then an ominous voice boomed out in the living room and Dewey headed for it, one of Daddy’s slippers in each hand.
All of them were staring at the TV. Leola and Paulette stood in the door, tea towels over their shoulders, Leola still holding a spatula. The kids were there, too, Tonia and Aldrich on the floor leaning against their daddy Ricardo’s knees, and Bettina cross-legged on the floor where Dewey had been. Dewey moved her over and curled up next to the recliner again.
The face of a man who must be a reporter filled the screen. His voice had everyone’s attention, but it was loud, garbled, urgent. Dewey couldn’t make sense of it.
“Who has the remote?” Leola said. “Anybody? Fix the volume, people.”
Ricardo pulled a remote out from under his leg and pointed it at the TV.
“Ricardo,” Paulette said.
Ricardo shook his head at her and fired off a series of clicks. He paused, but the audio was still scraggily, so he clicked once more. The TV picture shrank to a white dot, giving rise to cries of protest. “Sometimes it helps to turn it off and on,” Ricardo said. He clicked again. The TV powered up and helicopter rotors filled the room, pounding, thunderous.
“Turn it down,” Paulette said, covering her ears.
“Don’t!” said Daddy Royal. “Need to hear what’s happening.”
“What is happening?” Dewey said.
“They just said Katrina made landfall at Grand Isle,” Royal said. “Eye’s comin’ ashore at Plaquemines.”
“But this isn’t Grand Isle,” Mack said, pointing. “It’s New Orleans somewhere.”
“It’s Kenner or Metairie,” Royal said. “Wherever it is, it’s not good. It’s awful.”
On the right side of the TV screen was a man riding in the helicopter, headset clamped over his ball cap, sandy blond curls blowing in the wind. On the left side of the screen, the camera focused on something far below that looked unreal, like a fairy tale nightmare, a vast lake surrounding a floating city.
“Is that City Park?” Leola said, pointing with the spatula. “Tell me it isn’t Arabi.”
“No way,” Melvin said, hand over his mouth.
“Maybe,” Junior said. “I don’t know.”
A speaker on the shelf behind the TV sputtered and buzzed. “WE are WITNESSING a TERIBLE TRAGEDY as it UNFOLDS,” the reporter shouted over his shoulder, dark glasses looking into the camera.
The picture jumped up then down. The helicopter yawed left and twisted to the right.
“They shouldn’t be up there,” Daddy Royal said.
“The wind’s up around 150 miles an hour,” Mack said. “No way they have clearance to fly.”
Daddy Royal groaned. “Hurricane gonna take ‘em down.”
Then the camera shot went way across the huge body of water to the horizon that was tilted crazy, an alien sun glinting in the rain-streaked lens. The shot plunged dizzy down to the city, pulling close up on a crosshatch of canals extending out of frame, canals that had been streets, whole blocks submerged, house after house surrounded by water.
“The humanity,” Ricardo said, putting a hand to his forehead.
The camera zoomed left to a line like white rapids breaking in the water.
“That’s the 17th Street Canal,” Royal said. “Sweet Jesus.”
“Daddy,” Paulette said.
“The LEVEES have been BREACHED,” the reporter’s voice somehow rose above the deafening noise and he turned to a levee below that was broken in several places with water pouring through. A boat crawled along a street in a flooded neighborhood, one man rowing, another in the bow. A burning warehouse billowed black smoke.
“Officials tell us SOME of the city’s PUMPS have SHUT DOWN,” the reporter shouted at the camera and turned back to the scene. “What you’re seeing is water pouring into other water, seeking a new and deadly level in the neighborhoods of this city. New Orleans may be in DANGER of DROWNING.”
Leola put her hands to her cheeks.
“I don’t believe it,” Paulette said behind her.
A long howl filled the living room. They looked around at each other, then over at Daddy Royal, who had reached down to clutch Dewey’s shoulder.
“Where that boy of yours, Dewey?” Half a sob stuck in his throat and she started to cry. “Where that Landon? Run off in all this. What that poor boy thinkin’?”
Dewey stood up and bent over him in the recliner, hugged him, and he hugged her and held her tight, so that she almost fell on him. Then he pushed back on her shoulders to help her stand up and they laughed.
“Gimme them,” he said, the tears jiggling on his eyelids flooding up his eyes. He grabbed at his slippers and she let them go. “Gimme my moccs.”
Minutes later, Dewey stepped out on the back steps. She covered her face and stood quiet till her shoulders stopped shaking. She wiped her face with the heels of her hands, swiping out then down, and took a deep breath. Then she looked across the back yard at the line of aspens and the sunlight filtering through. She pulled out her cell phone and punched Hershel’s number. Then she waited, hoping, as she counted the rings.
Drink of the Ocean
Monday, August 29, 2005
7:22 a.m./central time
Streetlights flashed off and on and Hershel saw heads bobbing, arms paddling. He saw Nickie grab the corner of the building Annie’s Art Gallery was in and was pulled around it to vanish. Hershel clung to a light pole in the driving rain and the current tore at him until he let go, battling for air, headed inland for parts unknown.
Swallow the Gulf of Mexico, the thought somehow crossed his mind, go ahead drink of the whole goddam ocean. Swimming since he was two, growed up to be a goddam diver, and now it was as if all the water swirling around was going to surge down his gullet. Hershel sucked air around the sides of the torrent gushing in, spit and blew as he tumbled and swam in the sweeping surge, spewing out seaweed and bits of wood while he struggled to see what was coming up and then he went under. The rush in his ears vibrated with clonks like mountain boulders colliding underneath which he saw were cars and chunks of houses roiling in the surge. A block or two from the EOC, he grabbed a rope, someone’s pirogue floating by. He hauled himself into it, heard a shout and saw a black mop bobbing toward him, gasping and spitting, and recognized the county’s logistics person, Bogie they called her around the EOC. Reaching out, she took his hand, gripping fierce grim silent, face twisting. He gave a heft and she flopped over the gunwale and slid into the pirogue like a seal. The water carried them along Main Street through downtown Bay St. Louis, but the old boat had a bad hole and water rose rapid calf to butt as they crouched. Fingers clawed, Bogie combed the tangles out of her short black hair and looked around wild, scared, her eyes passing blind over him. The flood raced past shops and apartment buildings, homes and gazebos, up to the corner of Nicaise and Main, where the pirogue sank from under them like a stone as they were leaning around the corner and Bogue grabbed a power pole that came by and hung on, not even watching as he was swept away. The high-pitched notes of random birdcalls pierced the rattling, sluicing sound of rolling water, and he could pick them out, single sweet piano plinks puncturing the onslaught din. Of a sudden, he knew sure some cries were not birds but people calling haphazard, near and far between, someone’s mom or brother, child or elder, trapped in their own particular circumstance, pinned by a tree limb or going down for the last time or on a roof riding the crest of the flood, like him, hoping they might survive and he thought of Landon, how his boy had survived his runaways this summer, how he’d fare in this eternal hell. Then Hershel came into a neighborhood where he had never been before. He passed a funeral home, snatch of a name on the sign above it—Morris—then a two-bay garage that was Tug’s Towing and a church, St. Rose de Lima, and the houses fell away as the surge swept into the town’s stadium, sweeping in between the stands of St. Stanislaus, the football field where he had watched a practice game of the county’s high school team, the Hancock Hawks, remembering the boys jumped at the snap and ran off left tackle on turf that was ten feet below him now. Out into another neighborhood and he came to another church, Morning Star, and another, Lagniappe Community Church, dark and empty, filthy water gushing head high through tall twin doors, and he slithered down the side of the building, grabbing at a windowsill as he swung around the corner to a submerged back porch. He caught a corner of the roof, fingertips ripping on the shingle grit. Grunting, he hauled himself onto the roof and crawled up winded to the peak. A man and four kids cowered under the eaves on the other side. They looked at each other, then at the brown-gray-green water rampaging through the neighborhood. Hershel saw a yellow plastic kayak coming and slid down to the water to grab it and slipped on to sit atop the slippery cowl. He nodded to the father and searched around for some kind of a paddle. He let go anyway and a board clunked hollow into the kayak as if on special order, new-milled clean two-by, four feet long. He started to paddle, looking ahead to the houses surrounded by the flood, then back at the family, the kids waving, their father looking away. He thought of Dewey and reached for the phone baggie around his neck but it was gone. Then there was only the water currents coursing into each other and plunging under, the clashing all he heard. Annalise, that was Bogie’s name. He had seen it on the roster when he signed in: Annalise Bogue. He remembered now she was the one who had called him to come into the EOC. Hershel smacked his lips and spat, his mouth the taste of ocean, and started to paddle again.
Get Me a Ticket
Monday, August 29, 2005
6:30 a.m./mountain time
Kneeling in the room under the stairs, Dewey tossed the newspaper with its circled job opportunities in her suitcase—she could call back to Colorado to line up some dental work when time allowed—and continued to throw in things she was going to need for the road and for however long she would be in New Orleans. She was angry with herself. It felt like she’d let up, like she had reached Colorado and allowed herself to think she was out of danger somehow when that was stupid, selfish—Landon wasn’t out of danger, so neither was she. It was clear she didn’t have to be here for Daddy—she’d helped get him here and now he had everyone else to care for him, an army to fetch his moccasins. And there was Hershel—who knew what he was going through? She had thought there was nothing to lose and punched the button and had been floored when the call connected to Hershel—no way. In the two or three seconds the call lasted, she’d heard him start to say her name, but it was what she’d heard going on behind him that chilled her heart, people calling out like they were trapped in hell, the clamor of wind and water, the rasp of Hershel’s breathing into the phone.
“Hard time sitting still?”
It was Mack, come to talk her out of leaving. “Don’t try to stop me.”
“No, no,” he said.
Dewey turned to look. Mack’s tall body filled the doorway with Leola and Paulette behind him and behind them Daddy Royal and everybody—the kids peeking between their knees.
“Dewey, I don’t know what you can do,” Daddy Royal said, peering in. “Everything gonna be torn up. They might not even let you into NOLA, let alone Chalmette.”
“I don’t care.”
“I know, honey. I’m not trying to stop you.”
“I got to go, Daddy,” Dewey said, gritting her teeth. “He’s my baby.”
“I know, I—” Royal broke off and backed away, probably to the recliner.
“Just take me down to this rental place,” Dewey said. “They’re holding a car for me.”
“No need, Dewey,” Mack said.
“Don’t tell me—”
“I am driving you to NOLA,” Mack said. “So is Junior.”
Already on her knees, Dewey bowed her head over her suitcase. Then she looked up at Mack and everyone. “I can’t ask you to do this,” she said, then closed the suitcase and snapped the locks.
“I told Mack he’s gotta go with you,” Leola said.
“Landon’s gonna know how much y’all love him,” Dewey said. “I’ll tell him.”
“Just get him home,” Melvin said. “Back with you, with us.”
“We love him and you, too, sister,” Paulette said. Dewey watched all their heads nodding.
“Besides,” Mack said. “I don’t have a recliner, anymore.”
“I heard that,” Royal said from the living room, followed by a deep chuckle.
Rider on the Wind
Monday, August 29, 2005
7:53 a.m./central time
Landon stopped to catch his breath and looked up again, careful to keep a good grip with his hands and legs. The wind kept trying to blow him away, but he didn’t mind it. It was just the hurricane getting physical, pushing him like his father might push him to do something. Like diving. He hated diving. He’d never said as much to Hershel, but he had to know. It didn’t matter, Hershel just continued pushing Landon, encouraging, prodding, bugging, never letting up. He still hated diving, but now it was mostly getting ready for a dive, all the equipment, trying to walk around in the flipping flippers. He hated spitting in his mask, then having to pull it on over his hair and ears.
Landon adjusted his hold on the limb that was he was level with. He could hear his mother as he held on. Careful, careful, she was saying, You be careful, Landon. You get hurt sometimes, but you know how to take care of yourself. He was soaring without his meds, though the voices had fallen away when he left Jimmie sleeping in Tollie’s garage. Maybe the wind had drowned them out, just like the waves of rain drumming the bus was the only noise he could hear till it let up. There weren’t any voices, but he knew someone was watching him, he’d felt it coming down Esplanade. Like always, the watcher turned out to be an eye that was looking at him, watching, waiting. Driving along the avenue, it hit Landon that it had been the eye lurking above him in the darkness around the rafters in the garage. He knew it had been the eye now, though it had not revealed itself. And now it was the eye again, peeking at him, then hovering out of sight in the oak branches and leaves above. Go at it, his father always told him, anything you’re afraid of, just run right at it.
Landon scooched around on the limb where he sat and looked down. The live oak’s limbs below him radiated around the trunk and bent up and down as they extended out. He could see the microbus below sitting beside the gigantic limb that had broken in the wind to fall across Esplanade Avenue. It might even be the same oak that had dropped a limb in front of them last night. He started climbing again, circling the trunk as he lifted himself from limb to limb, keeping the tree between himself and the wind when he could, holding on for dear life when he couldn’t. He got a peek at the eye now, its dead black pupil surrounded by gold.
And then he was as far as he could go, the thinner branches whipping in the wind near the top unable to bear his weight and impossible to hold onto. The eye was in plain view and pulsing. At him? Was it talking to him? He couldn’t tell. He was not afraid—he was going to go right at it. Landon wrapped his legs around the limb he was on and released his hands into the shrieking wind, ready to fly.
Dying wouldn’t be so bad, he thought, then heard another voice, Hershel’s: It’s a good life, Landon. Just hang on.