Hurricane Katrina: How My Brother Rescued Himself

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As most of you know, I have spent the last two weeks traveling around in Europe with Molly. Shortly into that trip, while I was staying with my friends Russell and Liz (who used to manage my spa in Puerto Rico) at their home in the countryside of England, I decided to impose on Russell to see if he could figure out how I could check my email from there. While we were trying (unsuccessfully as it turned out), we saw a little news by- line on the side of the screen announcing that a hurricane was about to hit New Orleans. Had we not been trying to get into my email, I would have been ignorant of the hurricane – and its devastation to my home- town for the whole rest of my trip. I had no access to television while I was there, and the international newspaper gave only sketchy coverage. There was no talk of it – everyone I spoke to over there only wanted to talk politics – wanted to know my views on Iraq, Bush, etc. Thank the heavenly lord high above (or wherever he or she resides – if he or she exists) that I had purchased an international cell phone before I left. I relied on my daily phone calls to my niece, Kim, in Atlanta for all my news of the catastrophe.

I realize as I write this, trying to assimilate the fact that as Gertrude Stein once said, “there is no there there” any more (she said it about that great desolate town of Los Angeles), that, in fact, there has increasingly been no there there for me for a while. Slowly, painfully – like pulling fingernails out one by one), I have been losing my hometown, my home-base, as it were, for the 20 plus years since my mother’s death. After she died, I tried – and somewhat succeeded, in moving my sense of home-base to my sister’s house – but then when Lee died – then there really was no sense of homeness for me in New Orleans any more. I went back; I stayed with my friend Cynthia a few times – I visited with my brother, David, and my sister’s family, Sanford, Kenny and Barbara, Sasha and Carey I have lovely memories of family seders and such – with and my mother’s family, Auntie, Carl, Lulu and Otto – and I loved those times with them, but as for feeling a sense of home, that was lost forever – at least in my heart. Because my home was Bellaire Drive – and my home was where my mother and I had lived together, where my sister, brother and father and I had lived – where we had lived as a family.

And now, it seems that home is lost, not just as a separation in distance (I in New York, they still there, or for my mother and sister, in their otherworldly homes), but as a physical locale as well.

In Europe, I stayed with new and old friends – with Liz and Russell in England, as well as Marie-Claude and Guy in France, and enjoyed time with Frederic and Mariese – and though I was staying in their homes, I felt as homey and comfortable in their homes as I had in my own home – and that was a great feeling, a great awareness – that home can be anywhere – that it need not be stationary and attached to a place – but rather it is attached to people, and warmth and invitation.

And, as the two weeks wore on, and Molly became increasingly home- sick, asking to come back home early – missing her friend Angela and her dad, I realized, too, that we had passed a milestone in our relationship. Home had always meant for Molly, as it had meant for me, too, early in my life – wherever mother was. But Molly was with her mother, and she was still homesick. It was painful to know this – that I alone was no longer sufficient for her, could no longer assuage her every pain. That I no longer carried the full meaning of home for her. But, this is as it should be, as it must be, as she grows and begins to develop her own sensibility about homeness. It is merely one of the pains of separation that all mothers must endure.

And now, for the remarkable story of my brother’s escape.

Primary in my experience in Europe was that no one could find my brother. He was MIA. I was frantic in not being able to reach him, hearing no word – and as the days wore on, my sense of despair only increased. I kept trying to contact him psychically – the way they do in The Four-Gated City (that wonderful classic book by Doris Lessing, where most of civilization has been destroyed, and there are only pockets of people still alive in far=flung reaches of the planet – and they have developed the high art of communicating psychically, since all other avenues of (electronic) communication have been cut off). But I was not receiving any information from David – so much for my psychic abilities – and so, for a full week, I had no way of knowing whether he was dead or alive.

We knew that he had decided to stay in New Orleans. Even before Kim told me that David had informed Sanford that he was staying, I knew he would stay. My brother is the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet, he jives and joshes with everyone, but he is very much a loner. Sanford went to Dallas to his brother’s; Auntie and Carl went to Houston with Carol; Lulu and Otto went to Delcie’s’ in Lafayette; my sister’s best friend, Geri, went to Atlanta. Everyone went somewhere. Except my brother. He was invited, could have gone to any of those places. But, as I said, he is a loner- and would have preferred passing the hurricane at home (there it is again – that theme of home) – alone, rather than imposing on others.

David lives on a street that routinely floods practically every time there is a rainstorm in New Orleans. He is used to dealing with his street flooding – as much as 2 feet even. My guess was that he would imagine that that would be the worse of it – and that he would prefer being there, and waiting out the pumping.

Here is his story, as he has told it to me:

Indeed, for the first 3 days of the hurricane and its aftermath, flooding is what happened. Yet, he had running water and electricity – he had stored food and drinking water – and although he couldn’t really get out of his house, he was fine. Unfortunately, the cell phone had gotten wet – and there was no way for us to reach him or for him to reach us. He was waiting for the pumps to begin their job of getting rid of the water. Unfortunately, the pumps didn’t work.

But on the 4th day, the 17th Street levee broke. This is the levee that is behind the back yard of my house and Lee and Sanford’s house. This is the levee on which Lee, David and I rode our horse, Crackers, every day after school – galloping the whole length of the levee – feeling the freedom of wild movement that you could feel only from a fast-running horse (or from a motorcycle – which both David and I also rode for decades). This is also the levee that I would run as my mother lay dying. I would run it to its end, where it dumped its waters into Lake Pontchartrain – that would be my 6 mile run during those days – my only escape during those morbid days from the death process that was overtaking my mother. So, this levee has special meaning to me – it was my stomping ground for play when I was a child, and it was my freedom, too, from constriction and pain that the death of a loved one invariably brings.

Everyone who lives on that levee has been aware for years of its fragility. We have all known that New Orleans is very much like the Netherlands – too low, too far below sea level, too surrounded my water – and that the Achilles heel of the town was its levee system, which everyone always felt was woefully inadequate.

When that levee broke, then the waters really came – and they came so quickly that people did not have a chance to respond. Because the air pressure was so low from the hurricane, it was as though there were a suction that sucked all the air out (as my brother put it), and that brought the waters in, pulling them into the town. And, because water seeks its lowest level, the waters came and came, until the waters in the town were the same depth as the waters of the lake – 20 feet in many places (depending, of course, on the depression spots of the land).

Once the waters came, then there was no way in or out. There was no more water to drink, and little food left. A few days passed, and, for David, as for the rest of the people who had stayed, there was no forthcoming rescue. My brother had access to his rooftop – and he was the only one on his street who did. My brother’s house is on a block that is almost entirely black. Most of the people there are poor – and most of them decided, as he did, to stay. His street is only a couple of blocks long – and it had become a river, a deep river. For 2 days, he climbed up to the roof, waving every time he heard a helicopter. Many helicopters saw him; some even came above his house – and then flew away. No one would pass down a rope to him. On the 3rd day, he yelled across the river to his neighbors that they should come over to his house – and all go up to the roof together – that they would only be rescued if there were enough of them. But his neighbors were fearful of the snakes in the water – and wouldn’t come over. He begged them to come – he told them they would die if they stayed where they were. But they were paralyzed by fear.

David knew that he would die in that house if he didn’t find a way of getting out.

There was a kid from the block who was using a piece of styrofoam as a float – and he was going up and down the block talking to people, passing messages. David offered him $20 for his float. The guy said that he had another at home, and gave David his spare one. Together they paddled down toward the Superdome. At the top of the overpass (above the waters) leading to the Superdome, the guards wouldn’t let David go any further. He argued and argued with them, but they wouldn’ t let him pass. He knew there was no life if he turned back. The Superdome, as bad as it was, was the only chance of survival.

He asked the guards (with machine guns) if he just jumped in the water and started swimming, would they shoot him? They said they would let him go, so he abandoned his little float that had served him well, he said goodbye to his trusty friend who had accompanied him but would go no farther, and he jumped in. This is the brother who, like his father, never learned to swim. But swim he did.

He stood for 18 hours in the Superdome – stood because if he didn’t stand, he would lose his place in line. He was one of the few white people there – one of the very very few. But as I have said, this is the brother who jives and joshes – better than the blacks who are his neighbors and his customers at the store – and he was entirely comfortable. And finally, he was put on a bus to Texas.

He landed in a suburb of Dallas. A minister of some sort eyed him, and went up to him and took him out of the shelter, brought him to his house, fed him, let him take a bath, gave him new clothes, bought him a cell phone – and opened up his home to him. I have to suppose that it was because David was white in a sea of blacks that he was chosen by this man, and that is unfortunate in many many ways – but he is my brother, and for me, this man’s kindness was a blessed mitzvah.

The house of my childhood is gone, as is my sister’s and brother-in-law’s house. Every one of my relatives is safe. Everyone is re-locating. David seems inclined to stay in Dallas. I have spoken to 2 of the people he has met there, and both of them told me how much they were enjoying him. That does not surprise me. Like I said, – he is instant friends with everyone, anyone.

In my many discussion with Guy in France (who is an engineer for a French oil and gas company), he said again and again that we have the technology to confront and deal successfully with most crises. The very sad thing about this whole catastrophe in New Orleans is that it wasn’t caused by a tidal wave of the lake (as we New Orleanians had always been afraid might happen and from which there would be no protection); it wasn’t caused by the river overflowing (as we also were afraid could happen in such a circumstance as this one). Rather it was caused by a breach in a tiny little levee – a levee holding waters of a canal – a little canal – not much wider than a New York street. All that needed to happen to prevent this was to strengthen the levees that held that canal. Compared to the Herculean efforts of building levees to hold back the force of the waters of the Mississippi River, or the giant lake that is Pontchartrain, the cost of this would have been miniscule. Everyone living on that canal knew it needed to be done.

I won’t even begin to talk about the decision many years ago of the Army Corp of Engineers to change the course of the river that has effectively eliminated the barrier islands in the Gulf that, for thousands of years, served as protection against just this sort of natural occurrence. The revenge of the mighty Mississippi is upon us.

It is, of course, fortunate that all my family has the means to create a new home-base for themselves. They will all do that – in Atlanta, in others parts of Louisiana, and in Texas – they will all live with family, or close to family. But there are so many down there who can’t do that – don’t have the means to do it. There will be many stories coming out of that town – about the demise of the town, about the horror of people trapped. But my brother’s story is one single story – not of heroism (he didn’t save anyone except himself – though he tried) – but of survival – and perhaps in the end, they are not so different.

Following is an excerpt from a New York Times article: The administration’s problems in the crisis seemed to crystallize in a dramatic appearance on the NBC program “Meet the Press” by Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish near New Orleans. Sobbing, he told of an emergency management official receiving phone calls from his mother, who, trapped in a nursing home, pleaded day after day for rescue. Assured by federal officials, the man promised her repeatedly that help was on the way.

“Every day she called him and said, “Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?’ ” Mr. Broussard said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, Mama, somebody’s coming to get you.’ Somebody’s coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Friday. And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.”


And, because about half the chickens we eat in this country come from the 5 states that were affected, it might be a good time to think about being a vegetarian.