1 Dead in Attic
Facing the Unknown 9/1/05
I got out.
I’m mystified by the notion that so many people didn’t even try; but that’s another story for another time.
We left Saturday, my wife, kids, and me. We went first to Picayune, Mississippi, thinking that a Category 3 storm would flood New Orleans and knock out power, but that we’d be dry and relatively comfortable in the piney woods while the city dried out.
Sunday morning, of course, Katrina was a massive red blob on our TV screens—now a Cat 5—so we packed up and left again.
We left my in-laws behind in Picayune. They wouldn’t come with us. Self-sufficient country folk; sometimes you can’t tell ’em nothing.
We don’t know what happened to them. My wife’s dad and her brother and their families: No word. Only hope.
Like so many people around the country wondering what happened to those still unaccounted for, we just don’t know. That’s the hardest part.
If you take the images you’ve seen on TV and picked up off the radio and Internet, and you try to apply what you know to the people and places you don’t know about, well, the mind starts racing, assumptions are made, and, well . . . it consumes you.
The kids ask you questions. You don’t have answers. Sometimes they look at me, and though they don’t say it, I can see they’re wondering: Daddy, where are you?
My six-year-old daughter, she’s onto this thing. What is she thinking?
We spent Sunday night in a no-tell motel in a forgotten part of downtown Vicksburg; a neighborhood teetering between a familiar antiquated charm and hopeless decay. Truth is, it called to mind my beloved New Orleans.
Most of the folks in the hotel seemed to live there permanently, and it had a hard-luck feel to it. It was the kind of place where your legs start itching in the bed and you think the worst and you don’t want your kids to touch the carpet or the tub and we huddled together and I read them to sleep.
Monday morning, my wife’s aunt told us they had a generator in Baton Rouge. As Katrina marched north and east, we bailed on our sullen little hotel and drove down along the western ridge of the storm, mostly alone on the road.
Gas was no problem. We had catfish and pulled pork in a barbecue joint in Natchez, and the folks there—everyone we have met along our three-day journey—said the same thing: Good luck, folks. We love your city. Take care of it for us.
Oh, my city. We have spent hours and hours listening to the radio. Image upon image piling up in your head.
What about school? What about everyone’s jobs? Did all our friends get out? Are there still trees on the streetcar line? What will our economy be like with no visitors? How many are dead? Do I have a roof? Have the looters found me yet? When can we go home?
As I said, it consumes you as you sit helplessly miles from home, unable to help anyone, unable to do anything.
If I could, what I’d do first is hurt the looters. I’d hurt them bad.
But you have to forget all that. You have to focus on what is at hand, what you can reach, and when you have three little kids lost at sea, they are what’s at hand and what you can reach.
I took them to a playground in Baton Rouge Tuesday afternoon. They’d been bottled up for days.
Finally unleashed, they ran, they climbed, they fell down, they fought, they cried, they made me laugh, they drove me crazy; they did the things that make them kids.
It grounds you. You take a breath. You count to ten. Maybe—under the circumstances—you go to twenty or thirty this time.
And tonight, we’ll just read them to sleep again.
We have several books with us because—and this is rich—we brought on our evacuation all the clothes and things we planned to bring on a long-weekend trip that we were going to take over Labor Day weekend.
To the beach. To Fort Morgan, right at the mouth of Mobile Bay.
Instead of that, I put on my suntan lotion and went out in the yard of the house where we’re staying in Baton Rouge and I raked a massive pile of leaves and limbs from the yard and swept the driveway.
Doing yard work and hitting the jungle gym on the Day After. Pretending life goes on. Just trying to stay busy. Just trying not to think. Just trying not to fail, really.
Gotta keep moving.