When Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, I wasn't anywhere near the Gulf Coast. I was at home, in air conditioning, watching it on television, cable news, 24/7.
My friend Wayne thought this natural disaster was one of those instances where television served us well. "The camera doesn't lie," he told me.
I watched the images, the endless wading through brown waters shiny with oil spills. I watched the floating, bloated corpses. To top it off, the temperatures hovered near 100 degrees for days on end while the elderly, the sick and dying, the poor, the bottom feeders waited for a drink of water in empty corridors lying in their own waste under hastily arranged sheets or stuck in a corner.
The stories from New Orleans Charity Hospital were dramatic enough to inspire TV writers for decades. The staff stayed around the clock with their mostly black patients, as the white patients from a private hospital across the way were evacuated. With no electricity and generators in the basement flooded, the doctors and nurses of Charity Hospital worked non-stop to save their indigent patients, manually squeezing the respirators in and out, sending out SOS bulletins repeatedly, hoping to reach someone in the outside world who could rescue them.
At the time, I don't think they thought they'd make it out alive. In a strange way, it felt as if I were watching the end of the world.
One man who said he was a doctor called into a New Orleans television station, which I was able to pull up on my computer. He sounded extremely emotional, saying he'd had to euthanize some of his patients rather than let them drown in the fast-rising waters after the levees broke.
There was no way to get them all to the rooftops.
In at least one nursing home, 35 patients were found dead. The doctors came out traumatized, but the poor pretty much took it in stride, having grown accustomed to the endless waiting, the slipping between the cracks, needing medicine just one day before your Medicaid spend-down is met.
When you're poor, whatever can go wrong will go wrong. The meek surely shall inherit the earth, I thought. At that moment, I couldn't think of anyone else who'd want it.
People too poor to get out of town were herded into the Superdome, while others walked to the Convention Center with what few belongings they could carry, with small children, in 100-degree heat, told that they would be picked up and evacuated. The promised transportation never arrived, and they remained in a sea of refuse and sewage with hungry, thirsty children, no food, no water, corpses hastily abandoned in corners. When the cameras panned them, they were almost all black, and it gave a face to the storm, a black face, which always amps up the rhetoric in America.
The floods drove remaining inhabitants to the attics of their houses and then to the rooftops, where we watched the survivors waving banners, writing SOS on their rooftops, ever more frantic for medical care, bedridden old people, sick people, children, the heartbreak of family pets left behind.
I watched as a bus picked up the people from the Superdome or the Convention Center, I've forgotten which. A small boy clutched his white dog, a little dustmop-dog, and somebody took it from his arms and threw it off the bus. There was no comfort for his screams and cries, and because I have a dog my heart was torn out of my chest.
Eventually, the last orphans of the storm were rescued by Coast Guard staff who dropped baskets to people on rooftops hour after hour and pulled them up in a terrifying feat of endurance. They took over 3,000 survivors, one basketful at a time. My great Aunt Lilly used to always say, "A steady drip fills the bucket," and I've never seen this axiom more aptly demonstrated.
I would have looked at the job in front of me and despaired. These brave people just went on, one basket at a time, one person at a time, for days.
When I was a child, we lived in Tupelo, Miss., for a while, Tornado Alley some called it, and people there had storm houses built into raised earth like fruit cellars. When spring came, it brought the deadly storms, so powerful they could drive a straw through a telephone pole.
My memory of those days before I was 5 years old is as fragile as cobwebs: the darkening skies, the tension in the air, my father picking me up and running with me to the storm house while Mother got my little sister. The next morning, in the cool calm that a tornado always brings, we drove to the riverbank and saw the houses, some of them twisted, all of them with no rooftops. On a couple of porches the people sat rocking hypnotically, as if they were in shock. The stillness and the destruction burned itself into my mind.
Our stories define us. They can be either heroic and inspiring or flat and shameful, but they place us in context and provide the rich topsoil for our moral fiber.
We can only hope the stories that emerge from the Gulf Coast cast us in a human light in the history books and that New Orleans doesn't become the developer's dream: a kind of Disneyland without the rides, Jazz without the Blues and rich as cream.
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