This notion stood out to me because I am under the impression that the police who had not deserted their duty forced the homeless to stay in the areas of the Dome and the Convention Center at gunpoint. If you were black, leaving these cordoned areas was not an option.
Still I think this is worth the read, and hope you do, too.
Wading Toward Home
October 9, 2005
By MICHAEL LEWIS in the New York Times
I. Kings and Queens (and Squires) in Old, Old New Orleans
There's a fine line between stability and stagnation, and by the time I was born, New Orleans had already crossed it. The difference between growing up in New Orleans, starting in 1960, and growing up most other places in America was how easy it was to believe, in New Orleans, that nothing meaningful occurred outside it. No one of importance ever seemed to move in, just as no one of importance ever moved away. The absence of any sort of movement into or out of the upper and upper-middle classes was obviously bad for business, but it was great for what are now called family values. Until I went away to college, I had no idea how scattered and disjointed most American families were. By the time I was 9, I could ride my bike to the houses of both sets of grandparents. My mother's parents lived six blocks away; my father's parents, the far-flung ones, lived about a mile away. I didn't think it was at all odd that so much of my family was so near at hand: one friend of mine had all four of her grandparents next door, two on one side, two on the other. At the time, this struck me as normal.
Every Christmas, my mother's side of the family gathered for a party that confirmed for me that just about all white New Orleanians, even the horrible ones, were somehow blood relations. Before I could do long division, I knew the difference between a third cousin and a first cousin twice removed. Wherever I went, I was defined by family, living and dead.
My mother's family, the Monroes, were the arrivistes: they had been in New Orleans since only the 1850's. Nevertheless, my great-grandfather J. Blanc Monroe, descended from James Polk on one side and James Monroe on the other, became the spearhead of the New Orleans aristocracy. In "Rising Tide," John Barry's history of the 1927 flood, Papa Blanc, as he was known, is cast as one of the villains who pressed the government to dynamite the levees below New Orleans and flood the outlying parishes in order to spare the city; he then stiffed the victims, on behalf of the city, when they came for reparations. My father's side, the Lewises, were the old New Orleanians. They came down from Virginia in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson sent my father's great-great-grandfather Joshua Lewis to be a judge for the territory of Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase. Eventually he joined the Louisiana Supreme Court, wrote the state's first legal opinion, gave the celebratory toast at the banquet given to honor Andrew Jackson in 1815 after the Battle of New Orleans and, as the Protestant candidate, narrowly lost the governor's race to his Catholic opponent, Jacques Philippe Roi de Villere, whose descendant Sandy lived across the street from my parents until last year. Joshua's son John Lewis was elected mayor of New Orleans and was wounded at the Battle of Mansfield.
As a boy, I had no idea when the Lewises arrived in Louisiana, or that Thomas Jefferson himself had sent them. I just knew that everyone around me had been there forever, mostly in the same houses. I took it as the normal state of affairs, the done thing, that when the old carnival organizations went looking for royalty, they came to my Uptown neighborhood. There was, for instance, a Mardi Gras krewe for adolescents called Squires, which mimicked exactly the masked balls of the adults. When I was 16, I was dubbed its king: a group of five young men in suits, led by the departing king, turned up in our living room to tap my shoulders. After school for the next several weeks, I went straight from baseball practice to a school for royals in a cottage just off St. Charles Avenue, where a woman experienced in the ways of European royalty had taken up residence - presumably because we had the one growth market in the world for kings and queens. The tone of her sessions was serious, bordering on solemn. In that little cottage, I spent hours practicing to be king, a crown on my head, an ermine cape on my shoulders and a glittering scepter in my left hand that I waved over imaginary subjects, unaware that there was anything the slightest bit unusual about any of it.
Perhaps because their position in it was so fixed, my parents were never all that interested in New Orleans society - my father once said to me, "My idea of hell is a cocktail party." On the other hand, they have always been deeply engaged in civic life; they are, I suppose, what's left of that useful but unfashionable attitude of noblesse oblige. Without making any sort of show of it at all, my mother has run just about every major charitable organization in the city: as camouflage in the public-housing projects, where she spends a lot of her time, she has always insisted on driving the world's oldest and least desirable automobiles. (And, yes, she has many black friends.) My father is a different sort, less keen on getting his hands dirty. For 40 years, from the comfort of his private library, he has, every other Saturday, watched my mother push a lawn mower back and forth across the front lawn without so much as a passing thought that he might lend a hand. He was fond of citing the Lewis family motto:
Do as little as possible
And that unwillingly
For it is better to incur a slight reprimand
Than to perform an arduous task.
Like my mother, he seldom mentioned what he did away from home. Yet at one point in my childhood, he was president of so many civic and business enterprises that I didn't understand why they didn't just get it over with and make him president of the United States, too. He is still president of an unelected board of city elders, the Board of Liquidation, an artifact of Reconstruction that has, incredibly, the powers to issue bonds on behalf of New Orleans and to levy taxes to pay off those bonds.
But my parents have lived their entire adult lives fighting an unwinnable war. In their lifetimes, New Orleans has gone from the leading city of the South to a theme park for low-rollers and sinners. All the unpleasant facts about a city that can be measured - crime, poverty and illiteracy rates, the strange forms of governmental malfunction - have remained high. The public schools are a hopeless problem, and the public housing is a source of endless misery. A disturbing number of my parents' white neighbors have fled to white towns on the far side of Lake Pontchartrain. My parents would never put it this way, but they are fatalists; they have come to view change as unfortunate and inevitable. That's one difference between stability and stagnation. A stable society has the ability to reject or adapt to change. A stagnant one has change imposed on it, unpleasantly. The only question is from what direction it will come.
On the night of Sunday, Aug. 28, it came from the south. That's when my mother reached me in California to let me know that she and my father, along with my sister (a former, reluctant Mardi Gras queen) and her husband and their children, were stuck in a traffic jam heading for central Alabama. "We had to evacuate for the hurricane," she said. HURR-i-cun. New Orleanians generate many peculiar accents but nothing like a conventional Southern one. Anyone in New Orleans with a Southern accent is either faking it or from somewhere else. My mother often changes the standard pronunciation of words by stressing a first syllable. (Umbrella is UM-brella.)
"What HURR-i-cun?" I asked.
We had never left New Orleans to escape a hurricane. Betsy, in 1965, and Camille, in 1969, the meteorological stars of my youth, were wildly entertaining. Each in turn wiped out the weekend house built by Papa Blanc on the Mississippi Gulf Coast - Camille left behind nothing but the foundation slab - but that's what Mississippi was for: to get wiped out by hurricanes. A hurricane in Mississippi was not a natural disaster but an excuse for a real-estate boom.
In this unchanging world, something else was about to change. . .but what? My father believes in knocking on wood, and also that bad things come in threes. Having endured this past summer both a nasty heart operation and the death of his closest friend, he was happy to see that the third bad thing was merely another hurricane. He, like I, assumed they would drive to their friend's place in central Alabama, wait a day or two and then return to the same New Orleans they had fled. That was Sunday. The storm hit Monday morning, and the levees that protected the city from the lake broke. Then, of course, all hell broke loose. The mayor started saying that 10,000 people might be dead and that the living wouldn't be allowed to return for months. My parents left Alabama for a house in Highlands, N.C., that Papa Blanc bought in 1913. When the water is rising, it's nice to own a house in the highest incorporated town east of the Rocky Mountains - even if it is an old, chilly house without modern conveniences and a big sign inside that reads, "Yee Cannot Expect to Be Both Grand and Comfortable."
It's even nicer when you have immediate family accounted for. But on Sunday evening, my little brother, in hot pursuit of one of those Darwin Awards that are bestowed upon the unintentionally suicidal, looked at the traffic jam heading north out of New Orleans and decided instead to go south, toward Katrina, where the roads were clear and he could drive fast.
II. Rumors, Rumors Everywhere - and Haywood Hillyer
Three days after Katrina made landfall, I flew to Dallas and then, the next morning, squeezed between two FEMA workers on a flight into Baton Rouge. My father, even more risk-averse than usual, had phoned me and insisted that I shouldn't go home. When I wouldn't listen, he became testy with me for the first time in my adult life. "After what we've been through the past few months, you want to go and do this . . .," he started, though when he realized he wasn't going to change my mind, he changed his tune. "In that case," he said, "grab me a couple of tropical-weight suits and a pair of decent shoes. And just a handful of bow ties."
On my way into the city, at a gas station, I ran into two young men leaving in a pickup truck. They had just been stopped by the police in New Orleans and related the following exchange:
Cops: "Are you armed?"
Young men: "Heavily."
Cops: "Good. Shoot to kill."
The first surprise was that a city supposedly blockaded wasn't actually all that hard to get into. The TV reports insisted that the National Guard had arrived - there were pictures of soldiers showing up, so how could it not be true? - but from the Friday morning of my arrival through the weekend after Katrina hit, there was no trace of the Guard, or any other authority, on high ground. New Orleans at that moment was experiencing the fantasy of the neutron bomb: people obliterated, buildings intact. No city was ever more silent. No barks, shouts, honks or wails: there weren't even cockroaches scurrying between cracks in the sidewalks. At night, I soon learned, the sound of the place was different. At night, the air would be filled with helicopters reprising the soundtrack from "Apocalypse Now." But on that bright blue summer Friday, the city could not have been more tranquil. It was as if New Orleans had a "pause" button, and the finger that reached in to press it also inadvertently uprooted giant magnolias and snapped telephone poles in two.
The next surprise was that a city supposedly inundated had so much dry land. When the levees broke, Lake Pontchartrain stole back the wetlands long ago reclaimed for housing. Between the new lake shore and the Mississippi River of my youth is dry land with the houses of about 185,000 people. The city government in exile has categorized the high-ground population as 55 percent black, 42 percent white and 3 percent Hispanic. The flood did not discriminate by race or class. It took out a lot of poor people's homes, but it took out a lot of rich people's homes too. It did discriminate historically: it took out everything but the old city. If you asked an architecture critic, or a preservationist, to design a flood of this size in New Orleans, he would have given you something like this one.
This wasn't supposed to be. After the levees broke, Mayor Ray Nagin, who grew up in New Orleans, predicted that even Uptown would be under 15 to 20 feet of water. But most of Uptown was dry. Chris O' Connor, vice president of the Ochsner Clinic, the one hospital still open, would tell me: "As the water rose, everyone was quoting different elevation levels. One doctor said Ochsner was 2.6 feet above sea level. Someone else said Ochsner was 12 feet above sea level. No one knew where the water would stop." But it stopped a far way from Ochsner. There's a long history to this sort of confusion: as a child I was told many times that the highest point in New Orleans was "Monkey Hill." Monkey Hill was a pile of dirt near the Audubon Zoo, Uptown, used chiefly as a bike ramp by 10-year-old boys. The rest of the city was "below sea level." That the whole city was below sea level, along with the fact that we buried people in tombs above ground because we couldn't dig into the soil without hitting water, was what every New Orleans child learned from seemingly knowledgeable grown-ups about the ground he walked on. If there was ever a serious flood, the only place that would be above water was Monkey Hill - which caused a lot of us to wonder what the grown-ups were thinking when they brought in earth-moving machinery and flattened it. Now we didn't even have Monkey Hill to stand on.
Apart from a few engineers, no one in New Orleans knew the most important fact about the ground he stood on: its elevation. It took some weaving to get a car to my family's house, but water wasn't the obstacle. There was no water here; the damage from the wind, on the other hand, was sensational, like nothing I had ever seen. Telephone poles lay like broken masts in the middle of the street. Wires and cables hung low over the streets like strings of popcorn on a Christmas tree. But the houses, the gorgeous old New Orleans houses, were pristine, untouched.
Beyond Uptown, here is what I knew, or thought I knew: Orleans Parish prison had been seized by the inmates, who also controlled the armory. Prisoners in their orange uniforms had been spotted outside, roaming around the tilapia ponds - there's a fish farm next to the prison - and whatever that meant, it sounded ominous: I mean, if they were getting into the tilapias, who knew what else they might do? Gangs of young black men were raging through the Garden District, moving toward my parents' house, shooting white people. Armed young black men, on Wednesday, had taken over Uptown Children's Hospital, just six blocks away, and shot patients and doctors. Others had stolen a forklift and carted out the entire contents of a Rite Aid and then removed the whole front of an Ace Hardware store farther uptown, on Oak Street. Most shocking of all, because of its incongruity, was the news that looters had broken into Perlis, the Uptown New Orleans clothing store, and picked the place clean of alligator belts, polo shirts with little crawfish on them and tuxedos most often rented by white kids for debutante parties and the Squires' Ball.
I also knew, or thought I knew, that right up to Thursday night, there had been just two houses in Uptown New Orleans with people inside them. In one, a couple of old coots had barricaded themselves behind plywood signs that said things like "Looters Will Be Shot" and "Enter and Die." The other, a fortlike house equipped with a massive power generator, was owned by Jim Huger - who happened to grow up in the house next door to my parents. (When I heard that he had the only air-conditioning in town and I called to ask if I could borrow a bed, he said, "I'm that little kid you used to beat on with a Wiffle Ball bat, and I gotta save your ass now?") In Jim Huger's house, until the night before, several other young men had holed up, collecting weapons and stories. Most of these stories entered the house by way of a reserve officer in the New Orleans Police Department, a friend of Jim's, who had gone out in full uniform each day and come back with news directly from other cops. From Tuesday until Thursday, the stories had grown increasingly terrifying. On Thursday, a police sergeant told him: "If I were you, I'd get the hell out of here. Tonight they gonna waste white guys, and they don't care which ones." This reserve cop had looked around and seen an amazing sight, full-time New Orleans police officers, en masse, fleeing New Orleans. "All these cops were going to Baton Rouge to sleep because they thought it wasn't safe to sleep in New Orleans," he told me. He had heard that by the time it was dark "there wouldn't be a single cop in the city."
On Thursday night, Fort Huger was abandoned. Forming a six-car, heavily armed convoy, the last of Uptown New Orleans, apart from the two old coots, set off into the darkness and agreed not to stop, or even slow down, until they were out of town. They also agreed that they would try to come back in the morning, when it was light.
With one exception: one of the men who had taken his meals inside Fort Huger declined to leave New Orleans. Haywood Hillyer was his name. He had been two years behind me in school. We weren't good friends, just pieces of furniture in each other's lives. He had grown up four blocks away from me and now lived two blocks down the street, in the smallest house in the neighborhood. Any panel of judges would have taken one look at Haywood's house and voted it Least Likely to Be Looted. Haywood nevertheless insisted on risking his life to protect it. Outwardly conformist - clean-shaven, bright smile, well-combed dark wavy hair, neatly pressed polo shirts, gentle and seemingly indecisive manner - Haywood was capable all the same of generating a great deal of original behavior. This he did in the usual New Orleans way, by thinking things through at least halfway for himself before leaping into action. This quality in Haywood, the instinct to improvise, is also in the city; it's why New Orleans is so hospitable to jazz musicians, chefs and poker players.
The others couldn't decide whether to pity or admire Haywood, but in the end they gave him all their extra guns and ammo. By the time the convoy left the city Thursday night, Haywood had himself a .357 magnum, a .38 Special, a 9-millimeter Beretta and a sleek, black military-grade semiautomatic rifle, along with a sack holding 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Like most of the men in Uptown New Orleans, Haywood knew how to shoot a duck. But he had never fired any of these weapons or weapons remotely like them. He didn't even know what the sleek black rifle was; he just called it an "AK Whatever It Is." But that Thursday night, he took the three pistols and the AK Whatever It Was and boarded himself up inside his house.
Immediately he had a problem: a small generator that powered one tiny window air-conditioning unit. It cooled just one small room, his office. But the thing made such a racket that, as he put it, "they could have busted down the front door and be storming inside and I wouldn't have heard them. There could have been 20 natives outside screaming, 'I'm gonna burn your house down,' and I'd a never heard it." Fearing he might nod off and be taken in his sleep, he jammed a rack filled with insurance-industry magazines against the door. (Haywood sells life insurance.) In his little office, he sat all night - as far as he knew, the last white person left in New Orleans. He tried to sleep, he said, but "I kept dreaming all night long someone was coming through the door." He didn't leave his air-conditioned office until first light, when he crept out and squinted through his mail slot. In that moment, he was what Uptown New Orleans had become, even before the storm: a white man, alone, peering out through a slot in search of what might kill him. All he needed was the answer.
But that moment passed, and when the sun rose, he did, too, and went back to Fort Huger for food and clean water and a bath, in the form of a dip in the swimming pool. An hour later, in his underpants, and with a pistol in his hand, he discovered that he had accidentally locked the door to Fort Huger behind him, leaving all his keys and clothes and guns, save the one pistol, inside the fort. He couldn't think of what to do - he certainly didn't want to do anything so rash as break one of Jim Huger's cut-glass windows - so he plopped down on the porch in his soggy boxer shorts with the gun in his lap, and waited, hoping that the good guys would reach him before the bad guys did.
III. The Ex-Israeli Commandos and Their Russian Flying Machines
That's when I arrived - on the heels of the young men who fled town the night before. Unaware of Haywood's plight, I pulled up across the street from my parents' house, into the only spot clear of debris, in front of old Ms. Dottie Perrier's place. For many years now, the easiest way to determine if she was home had been to pull your car right up in front: if she was in, she would throw open her upstairs shutter and ask, sweetly, that you park someplace else. Now, along with going the wrong way down one-way streets, running stop signs and crossing the Audubon Park on the grass, parking right in front of Ms. Perrier's house was one of the new pleasures of driving around a city without any people in it.
The moment I cut the engine, her shutters sprang open. Out the front door she flew, with her white hair nicely coiffed and her big blue eyes blinking behind the oversize spectacles perched on her nose without earpieces. She had the air of an owl who has mistaken day for night. After spending the last five days inside her house, she was intensely curious.
"Where is everybody?" she asked.
"There's been a hurricane," I said. "The city has been evacuated. Everybody's gone."
"Really! So they've all left, et cetera?"
Her surprise was as genuine as her tone was pleasant. Two days before, it turned out, one of the men inside Fort Huger passed by and noticed outgoing mail in her slot. One letter was her electric bill - four days after the entire city lost power. He knocked on her door, told her she really should get out of town and then tried to explain to her that the postman wasn't coming, perhaps for months. Whereupon Ms. Perrier put her hands on her hips and said, "Well, no one informed me!"
Just then a car turned the corner, rolled up to a house in the next block and stopped. Its appearance was as shocking as the arrival of a spaceship filled with aliens - apart from Ms. Perrier, I hadn't seen a soul, or a car, for miles. Four men with black pistols leapt out of it. Two of them looked as if they belonged in the neighborhood - polo shirts, sound orthodontia, a certain diffidence in their step. But the other two, with their bad teeth and battle gear, marched around as if they had only just captured the place. Leaving Ms. Perrier, I wandered down and met my first former Israeli commandos, along with their Uptown New Orleans employers, who had come to liberate their homes.
They had just landed Russian assault helicopters in Audubon Park. Not one, but two groups of Uptown New Orleanians had rented these old Soviet choppers, along with four-to-six-man Israeli commando units (platoons? squads?), and swooped down onto the soccer field beside the Audubon Zoo. Down, down, down they had come, then jumped out to, as they put it, "secure the perimeter." Guns aimed, eyes darting, no point on the compass uncovered. As a young man in this new militia later told me: "Hell, yes, I was scared. We didn't know what to expect. We thought Zulu nation might be coming out of the woods." But the only resistance they met was a zookeeper, who came out with his hands up.
All of this happened just moments before. Right here, in my hometown. All four men were still a little hopped up. The commandos went inside to "clear the house." A nice little yellow house just one block from my childhood home. Not a human being - apart from Ms. Perrier and me - for a mile in each direction. And yet they raised their guns, opened the door, entered and rattled around. A few minutes later they emerged, looking grim.
"You got some mold on the upstairs ceiling," one commando said gravely.
IV. Fears, From High Ground to Troubled Waters
Pretty quickly, it became clear that there were more than a few people left in the city and that they fell broadly into two categories: extremely well armed white men prepared to do battle and a ragtag collection of irregulars, black and white, who had no idea that there was anyone to do battle with. A great many of the irregulars were old people, like Ms. Perrier, who had no family outside New Orleans and so could not imagine where else they would go. But there were also plenty of people who, like the portly, topless, middle-aged gay couple in short shorts walking their dogs down St. Charles Avenue every day, seemed not to sense the slightest danger.
The city on high ground organized itself around the few houses turned into forts. By Saturday morning, Fort Huger was again alive with half a dozen young men who spent their day checking on houses and rescuing the two groups of living creatures most in need of help: old people and pets. Two doors down from my sister's house on Audubon Park was Fort Ryan, under the command of Bill Ryan, who lost an eye to a mortar in Vietnam, was hit by a hand grenade and was shot through the arm and then returned home with a well-earned chestful of ribbons and medals. Him you could understand. He had passed the nights sitting on his porch with his son at his side and a rifle on his lap. "The funny thing is," he told me, "is that before now my son never asked me what happened in Vietnam. Now he wants to know."
The biggest fort of all was Fort Ramelli, a mansion on St. Charles Avenue. At Fort Ryan, they joked, lovingly, about Fort Ramelli. "We used to say that if a nuclear bomb went off in New Orleans, the only thing left would be the cockroaches and Bobby Ramelli," said Nick Ryan, Bill's son. "Now we're not so sure about the cockroaches." Bobby Ramelli and his son spent the first five days of the flood in his flat boat, pulling, they guessed, about 300 people from the water.
The police had said that gangs of young black men were looting and killing their way across the city, and the news had reached the men inside the forts. These men also had another informational disadvantage: working TV sets. Over and over and over again, they replayed the same few horrifying scenes from the Superdome, the convention center and a shop in downtown New Orleans. If the images were to be reduced to a sentence in the minds of Uptown New Orleans, that sentence would be: Crazy black people with automatic weapons are out hunting white people, and there's no bag limit! "The perspective you are getting from me," one of Fort Huger's foot soldiers said, as he walked around the living room with an M-16, "is the perspective of the guy who is getting disinformation and reacting accordingly." He spoke, for those few days, for much of the city, including the mayor and the police chief.
No emotion is as absurd as fear when it is proved to be unjustified. I was aware of this; I was also aware that it is better to be absurdly alive than absurdly dead. I broke into the family duck-hunting closet, loaded a shotgun with birdshot and headed out into the city. Running around with a 12-gauge filled with birdshot was, in the eyes of the local militia, little better than running around with a slingshot - or one of those guns that, when you shoot them, spit out a tiny flag. Over the next few days, I checked hundreds of houses and found that none had been broken into. The story about the Children's Hospital turned out to be just that, a story. The glass door to the Rite Aid on St. Charles near Broadway - where my paternal grandfather collapsed and died in 1979 - was shattered, but the only section disturbed was the shelf stocking the Wild Turkey. The Ace Hardware store on Oak Street was supposed to have had its front wall pulled off by a forklift, but it appeared to be, like most stores and all houses, perfectly intact. Of all the stores in town, none looked so well preserved as the bookshops. No one loots literature.
Oddly, the only rumor that contained even a grain of truth was the looting of Perlis. The window of the Uptown clothing store was shattered. But the alligator belts hung from their carousel, and the shirts with miniature crawfish emblazoned on their breasts lay stacked as neatly as they had been before Katrina churned up the gulf. On the floor was a ripped brown paper sack with two pairs of jeans inside: the thief lacked both ambition and conviction.
The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.
Here, in the most familial city in America, the people turned out to know even less of one another than they did of the ground on which they stood. Downtown, into which the people too poor to get themselves out of town had been shamefully herded by local authorities, I found the mirror image of the hysteria uptown. Inside the Superdome and the convention center, rumors started that the police chief, the mayor and the national media passed along: of 200 people murdered, of countless rapes, of hundreds of armed black gang members on the loose. (Weeks later, The Times Picayune wrote that just two people were found killed and there had been no reports of rape. The murder rate in the city the week after Katrina hit was unchanged.) There, two poor people told me that the flood wasn't caused by nature but by man: the government was trying to kill poor people. (Another reason it may never have occurred to the poor to make their way into the homes and grocery stores of the rich is that they assumed the whole point of this event was for the rich to get a clean shot at the poor.) In their view, the whole thing, beginning with the levee break and ending with the cramming of thousands of innocent people into what they were sure were death chambers with murderers and rapists, was a setup.
My great-grandfather J. Blanc Monroe is dead and gone, but he didn't take with him the climate of suspicion between rich and poor that he apparently helped foster. On St. Claude Avenue, just below the French Quarter, there was a scene of indigents, old people and gay men employed in the arts fleeing what they took to be bombs being dropped on them by Army helicopters. What were being dropped were, in fact, ready-to-eat meals and water in plastic jugs. But falling from the sky, these missiles looked unfriendly, and when the jugs hit concrete, they exploded and threw up shrapnel. The people in the area had heard from the police that George W. Bush intended to visit the city that day, and they could not imagine he meant them any good - but this attack, as they took it, came as a shock. "Run! Run!" screamed a man among the hordes trying to outrun the chopper. "It's the president!"
V. Securing Things, Including Dottie Perrier
Four days after I arrived, I walked down St. Charles Avenue and watched the most eclectic convoy of official vehicles ever assembled. It included (I couldn't write fast enough to list them all): the New York City Police Department, the Alameda County Fire Department, the Aspen Fire Department, the S.P.C.A. from somewhere in Kentucky, emergency-rescue trucks from Illinois and Arizona, the Austin Fire Department, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Consulate of Iceland and several pickup trucks marked, mysteriously, FPS: Federal Protection Services. The next day, the police chief said that New Orleans was "probably the safest city in America right now," and the mayor, removed to Dallas, announced that the city would be forcibly evacuated. The old social logic of New Orleans was now turned on its head: the only people welcome inside were those who had never before been there.
Overnight, the city went from being a place that you couldn't get out of to a place you had to be a conniver to stay in. In the few people who still needed to be saved there was a striking lack of urgency. When Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, rescuing people in a boat, spotted three young men on a roof and tried to ferry them out, they told him to leave them be and said, "We want to be helicoptered out." After my host, Jim Huger, took a pirogue to help an old man surrounded by flood waters, he passed an old woman sitting on her porch and offered to rescue her too. "Are you the official Coast Guard?" she asked. He said he wasn't. "I'm waiting for the official Coast Guard," she said and sat back down.
I had a half-dozen equally perplexing encounters. For instance, on one occasion I ran into a lady of a certain age, wearing a broad straw hat, pedaling a decrepit bicycle down the middle of St. Charles Avenue. She rode not in a straight line but a series of interlinked S's; it was as close as bike riding gets to wandering. I pulled up beside her in my car, rolled down the window and saw, in her lap, a dog more odd than she. "It has two purebred pedigrees," she said. "One is Chihuahua and the other is poodle."
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"I'm fine!" she said. "It's a beautiful day."
"Do you want to evacuate?" I asked, because I couldn't think of what else to say.
"I have $80," she said, still smiling. "I'd like to go to New York, but you tell me how far you can go in New York with $80."
In the back of my car, I now had about 60 gallons of water, picked up from beside Uptown houses, with the intention of redistributing them to the needy. "Do you need anything?" I asked her. "Water? Food?"
"No," she said, still pedaling. "I have a lot of water and even more food."
As I pulled away toward the water, she shouted, "But I could use some ice!"
Until now it had been possible to get around without credentials. But with the National Guard banging on doors, telling people they had to leave the city, out came the most outlandish fake ID's I had laid eyes on since high school. One fellow got around on a Marriott Hotel security badge, another dummied up a laminated picture of himself that said he was a doctor. On Louisiana Avenue, one of the world's leading dealers of African sculpture, Charlie Davis, answered his door to National Guardsmen. He told them he was employed by newspapers as a photographer, but when he turned to get his (fake) press pass, he told me, "the guns went up." When asked how much force he would use to remove people from their homes, Police Chief Eddie Compass said that he couldn't be precise because "if you are somebody who is 350 pounds, it will obviously take more force to move you than if you are 150 pounds." (Compass has since resigned.) Even the people who had come back home in Russian assault helicopters made a hasty exit, invariably leaving behind them, flying from a porch, the American flag. It was a symbol not of liberty but of personal defiance, a tribute to underdog-dom. It was aimed at the enemy and said, Take that! The Confederate flag had become unnecessary.
I drove over to give Ms. Perrier the news. Ms. Perrier weighs far less than 150 pounds. It would take almost no force, and little time, for the soldiers to cart her away. Wouldn't it be better if I drove her quietly out to the one hospital still open, the Ochsner Clinic, where she could be cared for?
"I'd rather go to Touro," she said. Touro is another New Orleans hospital, not as distinguished as Ochsner, but closer to her house.
"Touro's closed," I said. "Ochsner's the only hospital open in the city."
We agreed that she would be packed and ready to go in the morning - and she was. She came out wearing a bright dress and a brave smile, carrying an ancient silver suitcase.
"When's the hurricane coming?" she asked.
"It already hit," I said, then realized it must seem callous to her to relate this shocking news in such a dull tone.
"You're kidding!" she said. "Well, I'm glad the worst is over."
It went like this all the way to the Ochsner E.R. I left her at check-in, with an understanding that she would be evaluated and, I assumed, admitted. She sat down at the bank-teller-like window and produced her wallet with various ID cards. The lady in the window assured me that Ms. Perrier would be taken care of.
VI. Afloat and Adrift
From there I set out into the water with a purpose. My brother had been found unjustifiably alive in Lafayette, La., studying satellite photographs on the Internet to determine just how many miles he would need to swim to get to his house. He alone of my immediate family had set up home beyond Uptown, but even so he had bought an old house. For some time now, he has had this thing about his little shotgun cottage - it isn't just an ordinary affection; it's true love - and so the last few days he had been contemplating total loss. It's all gone!
I reached the flood water a mile or so from the river. A mile farther, the street signs vanished below the surface, and the upper branches on old oak trees rose up from the water like the fingers of drowning men. But the water didn't simply get deeper the closer you got to the lake. There were local highs and lows, so that it was actually very hard to get around in anything but a pirogue or an airboat without scraping the bottom. I picked up Charlie Davis, the African sculpture dealer masquerading as a photojournalist, and we drove down the Esplanade Ridge through a foot or so of water until we were as close as we assumed we could get to my brother's place. I had no idea that there was such a thing as the Esplanade Ridge - a strip of high ground that runs from the (high) river to the (low) lake - but in retrospect I should have. It is the one strip of land, apart from old Crescent City decorated with lovely old homes. (It's where Degas lived during his year in New Orleans.) People built here originally because it was dry.
Before plunging off the side of the ridge, we shimmied into duck-hunting waders, surgical masks and rubber gloves. The water was black and viscous and smelled only of petroleum, but the doctors at the Ochsner Clinic had said they were finding chemical burns on people who had been in it. Waist deep, we gently ascended to the back of my brother's house - which was high and dry. The leaves in his yard crunched underfoot like fresh cornflakes. He had made his home on what amounted to a peninsula off one side of the Esplanade Ridge, saved by his preference for old New Orleans architecture.
On the way out, we were able to loop around to the car without getting wet. That's when we first heard the gunshots.
They were coming from a house just across the street, maybe 30 yards away.
"That's a .22," Charlie said. The last time Charlie was amid gunfire was when he went to Liberia to buy African sculpture and wound up hiding in an elevator shaft during a coup. He knows his gunshots.
Several things happened all at once. A hissing sound (Psst! Psst!) that, it occurred to me only later, and a bit hopefully, must have been bullets whizzing past us. (After the fact, more danger is always better than less.) Overhead, two sheriffs' helicopters swooped down. Coming toward us by land was the 82nd Airborne in their jaunty red berets. We ran.
The trouble was, there was nowhere to go. We reached the end of the Esplanade Ridge and found that the only way out was back the way we came. Retracing our path, we passed the house of the man with the gun, now surrounded by the 82nd Airborne. "He's not actually shooting at anybody," the soldier in charge said wearily. "He was just trying to get someone to bring him some water."
Three hours after I dropped her off, I returned to visit Ms. Perrier, who, I assumed, would be propped up in the geriatric ward, sipping warm milk, maybe watching a game show. The lady behind the desk looked down at a sheet. "She's been discharged," she said.
"How? She doesn't even have a car."
"She'd have been bused out," she said.
It was that word, "bused," that chilled the spine. The buses were controlled by the authorities. New Orleans now had a new word for what happens to people unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the authorities purporting to save them: domed. As in "I just got domed," or "If the police knock on your door, don't answer, 'cause you might get domed." To be domed is to be herded into a domed sports building - the Superdome, the Astrodome, the Maravich basketball arena at Louisiana State University - for your own safety. Ms. Perrier hadn't really wanted to leave her house in the first place. She had entrusted herself to me. Now she had been domed.
VII. Two Very New Orleanian Reasons for Staying in New Orleans
New Orleanians often are slow to get to the point: in my youth it was not unusual for someone to call my mother, keep her on the phone for 20 minutes, hang up, then call back because she never got around to what the call was about in the first place. The point is never really the point. Conversation in New Orleans is not a tool but a pastime. New Orleans stories are given perhaps too much room to breathe; they go on and on so entertainingly that only later do you realize that there were things in them that made no sense.
At some moment, I realized that Haywood Hillyer's story made no sense. Why, really, had he stayed? The first time I asked him, he replied: "These other guys had children, so they felt it wasn't worth the risk. I didn't have children." This may have been true as far as it went, but it didn't really answer the question: childlessness is not a reason to risk your life. Just three months earlier, he married a lovely young woman who was reason enough to live. He wasn't by nature defiant, or belligerent. He was just different, in some hard-to-see but meaningful way.
The fourth time (in four days) that I put the same question to him - Yeah, but why did you stay? - Haywood stood and, with the air of a man ready to make his final statement, said: "O.K., I'll tell you why I stayed. But this it totally off the record."
"Fine, it's off the record."
"Totally off the record."
"O.K., totally off the record."
"There were these feral kittens under my house," he began, and off he went, explaining how these little kittens had come to depend upon him, how three of them now live with him but two still refuse to let him near them, even though he feeds them. There's a long story that he swore was interesting about how these cats got under his house in the first place, but the point was this: If he left, there would be no one in New Orleans to feed the cats.
Haywood Hillyer stayed and, for all anyone knew then, risked being skinned alive or worse to feed cats. And the cats didn't even like him.
Two days later, as he was pulling out of town, I explained to Haywood that he just had to let me put his story on the record. "It'll make me look like a wuss," he said. I convinced him that in view of the fact that his bravery exceeded that of the entire Police Department and possibly the Armed Forces of the United States, the last thing he would look like is a wuss.
"All right," he finally said, "but then you got to get the story exactly straight. There was one other reason I stayed. It wasn't as important as the cats. But it wouldn't be a true story unless you mentioned the other reason."
"What's the other reason?"
"It took my wife 12 hours to drive from New Orleans to Jackson on Sunday," he said. "She left Sunday at 1 p.m. and arrived in Jackson at 1 a.m."
"That's usually a two-and-a-half-hour drive."
"Right. So what?"
"You don't understand: I hate traffic."
VIII. A City of Storytelling - and a Little Hope
There's a reason that New Orleanians often turn out to be as distinctive as their homes. The city doesn't so much celebrate individualism as assume it. It has a social reflex unlike any other I've encountered: people's first reaction to other people is to be amused by them - unless of course they've been told by the police that they are about to be killed by them.
If the behavior of the people was peculiar once the flooding started, it was peculiar in the way New Orleanians are peculiar. At the outset people were shockingly slow-footed. But then New Orleanians are always shockingly slow-footed. Even the most urgent news, the levee break, took 20 hours to officially reach the people in harm's way, long after the water itself did. But news isn't what New Orleanians tell; stories are. And the long days after the waters leveled off were a perfect storytelling environment - no reliable information, a great many wild rumors, the most outlandish fictions suddenly plausible - and the people used it to do what they do best. But so far as I can tell - and I covered much of the city, along with every inch of the high ground - very few of the many terrible things that people are reported to have done to one another ever happened. With the brutal exception of the violent young men forcibly detained in the Superdome and the convention center with 25,000 or so potential victims, civilians actually treated one another extremely well. (There's a different story to tell about government officials.) So far as I can tell, no one supposedly defending his property actually fired a shot at anyone else - though there have been a couple of stories, unconfirmed, of warning shots being fired. Yet even as the water flowed back out of the city, my father called to say that a friend in exile had just informed him that "they had to shoot about 500 looters." The only looter admitted to Ochsner, the city's one functioning hospital, was a white guy who was beaten, not shot - though badly enough that a surgeon had to remove his spleen.
Driving out of New Orleans to search for Ms. Perrier, I had a delicious sensation I associate with home, of feeling something that I ought not to feel and of being allowed to feel it. I had come to New Orleans because I felt obliged: I had skipped too many funerals already and didn't think I should miss the last big one. But the flood did not drown the past; it forced it to the surface, like one of those tightly sealed plastic coffins that, when the water comes in over the graveyard, shoot through the dirt and into broad daylight. (Yes, it turns out that we buried some of our dead in the ground too, and that the ground was perfectly capable of receiving them.) The levees were breached, but something else cracked, too, inside the people behind them. The old facade; the pretense that New Orleans was either the Big Easy or it was nothing; that no great change was ever possible. A lot of New Orleanians, from the mayor on down, obviously did not feel so easy. They harbored a deep distrust of their own city and their fellow citizens - which is why they were so quick to believe the most hysterical rumors about one another. The waters came to expose those fears and to mock them. The ghosts have been flushed out of their hiding places; now there's a chance to chase them away, or at least holler at them a bit.
The late great novelist Walker Percy, a lifelong New Orleanian, was attracted to the psychological state of the ex-suicide. The ex-suicide is the man who has tried to kill himself and failed. Before his suicide attempt, he had nothing to live for. Now, expecting to be dead and discovering himself alive, something inside him awakens: so long as he's alive, he might as well give living a shot. The whole of New Orleans is in this psychological state. The waters did their worst but still left the old city intact. They did to the public schools and the public-housing projects what the government should have done long ago. They called forth tens of billions of dollars in aid, and the attention of energetic people, to a city long starved of capital and energy. For the first time in my life, outsiders are pouring into the city to do something other than drink. For the first time in my life, the city is alive with possibilities. For the first time in my life, it doesn't matter one bit who is born to be a king. Whatever else New Orleans is right now, it isn't stagnant. As I left, I thought about what an oddly characteristic thing it would be if it was a flood that saved New Orleans.
here was to be no finding Ms. Perrier in the flesh, only the spot where her trail went cold. After a frantic search, a woman at Ochsner found that Dorothy Perrier of State Street had been bused with other refugees to the Maravich arena in Baton Rouge. From there, no one could say what had become of her. "This isn't going to take five minutes," a woman working in Missing Persons at the basketball arena said. "We have no records for most of the people who came through here." But it took exactly five minutes for her to return with the news that there were no records for Ms. Perrier. Anywhere. "Even if she did go through here, we wouldn't necessarily have a record," she said. Most likely, she added, she was bused to a shelter in Alexandria or Lake Charles. To me that sounded like wishful thinking: there wasn't room in the state for but a relative handful of the one million New Orleanians who evacuated in the past week. But on my way out, she handed me a piece of paper with phone numbers for the Red Cross. "You might try them," she said. "Sometimes they can find lost people."
I don't know why it never occurred to me to call the Red Cross. I suppose I always thought of them as something to give money to, not ask help from. But from my gate at the airport, I phoned the Red Cross, and in what seemed like an instant, a man told me, "Here she is - in Battle Creek."
"Battle Creek, La.?" I asked, hopefully.
"Battle Creek, Mich.," he said. He gave me another number, and in a minute or so Ms. Perrier herself was on the other end of the line. She couldn't have been more pleasant, even as she remained bewildered by what had just happened to her. It all took place so fast, she said, that she didn't even remember how she got from her house on State Street all the way to Michigan. (And thank God for that.) "Everyone up here is so nice, et cetera," she said. "But I really just want to go home."
Michael Lewis is a contributing writer for the magazine.
Reprinted without permission
Thanks to jendi for sending this along!
Dick Mac Recommends:
Worse Than Watergate
John W. Dean