Novelist JOSEPH BOYDEN on picking up the pieces in his adopted city

September 19 2005


Novelist JOSEPH BOYDEN on picking up the pieces in his adopted city

September 19 2005




Novelist JOSEPH BOYDEN on picking up the pieces in his adopted city

BILL AND NANCY LIVE in the Mid-City district of New Orleans, right around the corner from a mutual friend’s skinny little bar named Pal’s. Bill and Nancy, my wife Amanda and I, all of us teach at the University of New Orleans. The past three summers we’ve also taught together in a study-abroad program in Madrid, and we are close friends.

When Katrina hit New Orleans, people like us were scattered to the winds. Fortunately, people like us had places to go, often with access to the Internet and other creature comforts. We started our own virtual moccasin telegraph, sending out reports of who was safe and who was missing, who had escaped and who had decided to ride it out. Bill and Nancy,


Flood waters surround the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on Aug. 30

for whatever reason, hung in—just two of the 125,000 (out of a population of500,000) who remained in the city. On Tuesday, they were unaccounted for. By Friday, a bizarre three days of growing calamity later, another friend sent word that they’d escaped in a harrowing, Hollywood-scripted way. Their house began to flood. They stole a neighbour’s abandoned boat. They made their way to another friend’s abandoned car, stole that, too, and drove out of the city.

About the same time, three students from Duke University, as reported by CNN, were able to drive into the city and quickly find and rescue a number of citizens. This astounded a lot people. All of the talk about how dangerous it was for the National Guard to enter, never mind the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross. And yet these three average-looking white kids stocked up their car with food and water, counterfeited press passes and drove right by the army vehicles sitting idle on

the wrong side of the Crescent City Connection, a huge bridge that joins the West Bank to New Orleans.

Let me fill you in on the geography of accessing New Orleans. The I-10 comes in from two opposing sides of the city, one of which is currently impassable. That’s the bridge we’ve seen on the news, the one crossing Lake Pontchartrain and now missing large swaths. But then there is also US 90, the highway that takes you through Cajun country, and eventually deposits you onto the Crescent City Connection, and then straight into New Orleans. That highway and bridge are completely intact. Once over this bridge you are literally at the Convention Center, where thousands of stranded and forgotten citizens have languished. How FEMA did not even know of them until the Thursday after the storm is worse than astounding. And once over the bridge and into New Orleans you are maybe a two-minute straight-shot drive to the Superdome. Why, then, could rescue work-

ers and the military not aid those people more quickly? I think this is what angers and confuses so many New Orleanians.

But, as everyone keeps on saying, now is not the moment to play the blame game. There will be plenty of time for that later. Let’s focus on rescuing survivors, and taking care of evacuees blown every which way.

Last year, a number of my more enterprising graduate students created a weblog, full of hilarious pictures and stories, of news and information regarding our tight-knit writer’s community. Nobody then knew that this was to become our lifeline with one another. The stories aren’t so funny these past two weeks. Matt, a graduate of our writing program, stayed in New Orleans to offer his services at a hospital. His blog account is harrowing (page 30). A.C. and Bill escaped to the mountains of North Carolina. Chrys is stuck in Monroe, La., and describes the place as having the most tanning salons per capita in the U.S. Chrys is of Hawaiian and Native American ancestry and says he feels like a raisin in a bowl of milk. Jessica and her husband have informed everyone that they are taking advantage of getting back into Jefferson Parish, La., where their house is, to see if anything is left worth salvaging.

So this is how our world ends—not with a bang, but a whimper. A few of the braver ones have reported that they’ll return to New

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Orleans as soon as they’re allowed, and begin rebuilding their lives. None of us has approached the subject of what is going to happen to all the areas sunken in putrid water, of how the clearly changing physical and social geography is going to alter the city forever. Already, economists are saying the city will suffer enormously if even a fraction of New Orleanians don’t return. So why would anyone consider going back to a place where the reasons for not returning so outweigh the positives?

Because this is New Orleans we’re talking about, the city that is so much a cultural birthplace of America. This is the ground zero for all that is good and all that is horrendous in the U.S. It’s become a cliché, but there is no other place on Earth like New Orleans. On a good night, the danger that bubbles just below the surface is palpable. But even on a bad night, you can still feel the lust for life pulsing out of open bar doors, music halls and shuttered homes Uptown, in the Marigny, in the lower Ninth Ward. A friend recently said in an email that New Orleans isn’t just his home, it’s a state of mind.

Last week, Amanda and I left Houston (she had fled there alone, and I’d joined her there after returning from an international trip) and made our way to Memphis. If there is any place similar to New Orleans, it is this other city on the Mississippi. A younger, quieter cousin. We continue to feel idle, useless, especially here just up the river. And so we’ve hatched a plan. If boys from Duke who’d never even been to New Orleans can do it, so can we. We need to see what has become of our home for ourselves. Nothing else will stave off the overwhelming weight of idleness. On Monday, we are going to load up a car in Baton Rouge with bottled water, instant meals, pet food and hip waders, and then—armed with press passes—go back home, to try to do something for the city that has given us so much. Pieces need to be picked up.

A half-million stories of heartbreak; 125,000 stories of desperation. And that’s just in New Orleans. 171

JOSEPH BOYDEN, 38-year-old author of the acclaimed novel Three Day Road, was born in Toronto and has lived in New Orleans for 11 years


where has stabilized. My car is in a different neighbourhood, and is probably under water. I haven’t spoken directly to [my girlfriend] Tristyn since Saturday, although word has reached my ears that the town in Mississippi she fled to was hit but rode it out all right. Which helps me sleep a little better, but...

I’m doing okay. A few nights ago I found a quiet conference room to camp out in (no more sleeping on an obstetrics/gynecology bed for me!), and in my off hours hole up in there to read and write by flashlight. Given that I’m using my Swiss Army knife to open and consume all of this canned food (Vienna sausages! Campbell’s spaghetti! Del Monte Pears! SPAM!!), it’s a lot like Boy Scout camp. Except without the fun. I’m on my last set of clean clothes, but there’s talk the hospital laundry may be functional again, so we can get stuff

Matthew Baldwin, a 26-year-old from San Diego and student at the University of New Orleans, was at his part-time job as a security guard at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation Hospital when Katrina struck. He’s been there ever since, and posted this account on his personal weblog.

My cellphone is currently dead, as all the local towers have lost power. Although the hospital is still running on emergency power, we’ve managed to restore air conditioning to most of the building, and have hot running water in places. We are currently the only functional medical facility within the metropolitan area.

The restoration of AC is crucial. It’s been so hot over the last three days that people’s tempers have been flaring, and my crew and I have had a great deal of peacekeeping to do. Stress and anxiety aren’t helping, and on the average most people are getting about four hours of sleep for every 24. Last night one of my friends in the emergency room gave me an intravenous of fluids to fight off dehydration. The Red Cross, National Guard and Salvation Army are here, distributing food and blankets. A local grocery store has a warehouse across the street, and they gave us permission to raid it at our whim. People are kind of on the barter system right now: a can of peaches for a change of scrubs, a tube of toothpaste for a spare blanket. I traded off a razor for shower privileges in the emergency room.

There have been several shootings around town as of last night. Two individuals assaulted a police station with AK-47s, and there are reports (which I’m getting from the cops stationed here to help us out) that medevac helicopters and ambulances are being fired upon. Looters downtown are turning on each other, and some of the bodies floating around downtown aren’t drowning victims. The hospital has issued each member of my team a sidearm.

Last word I heard is that my neighbourhood has stayed fairly dry. Flooding else-

washed. The mayor’s office is going to allow us to attempt to return to our homes Monday, and, if I can, I’ll grab more clothes. As far as civvies go I only have three T-shirts and a pair of jeans, and at this point the pants can walk around without me.

Right before the hurricane hit I worked an unbroken week, which means that I am currently on my 12th day straight without a break. The hospital is paying us, so it’s going to be a big damn cheque. All proceeds will be going to the “Get My Ass Back To California” (GMABTC) fund. I’ll take an earthquake any damn day of the week.