Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Crazy Before the Storm: Or, Go, Go GO!"

Yesterday morning I got up early. I walked along the levee, where dragonflies divebombed crazily, aiming at nothing in particular, it seemed, as though drunk on the heat.

Even before we moved to Holy Cross, I'd planned to take these morning walks on the levee. Having access to greenspace in our clustered-up city is such a rare thing, and the path along the Mississippi is just one block from our new home--a fact that made me giddy. I looked forward to morning walks on the levee. Yesterday, after Simon woke me, I contemplated staying in bed until eight, but contemplating and then giving myself permission to simply stay there is a problem of mine. So I forced myself out of bed and into the company of the Mississippi River and the dragonflies.

I was trying to make my head quiet while I walked, trying to wring the storm out--both the last storm and now this Gustav-fucker. Coming from a hairy-armpitted mother and growing up in the company of many women who are interested in what my mother's guru-like friend would call "woo-woo" stuff, I've had a fair amount of exposure to the notion of meditating, but I've never had the discipline--or even the inclination, really--to commit to doing it at all, much less regularly. You're supposed to choose a word--a word that you can go to when the outside pushes in. A word that will re-center you and keep you focused on, well, nothing. Words like "peace" or "calm" would be good ones, I supposed.

I told myself I would try these words. I would attempt to focus on repeating them instead of on cursing the dog-walker who neglected to pick up after their dog. Peace... peace...

But then at 8:00 am, the Naval base across the river piped out its morning reveillion (?) , and next came the national anthem. With no breeze to lift these and carry them away from me, I heard them both as if I was there, myself. And then "peace" became "war." So I tried "calm." As in, "before the storm." That didn't work.

What if I picked my own focusing word? "Go" seemed like a good choice. Go: such a proactive, positive word, so tidy and round and uplifting, even. Go... go... go...
But the outside had, by then, already pushed its way in. And try as I might to focus on the present, on placing my feet one in front of another on the gravelled levee path, on breathing the air, on flowing with the river, I couldn't do it. I started thinking about having to "go" away--about having to evacuate. As in, "Go, go, GO!" As in run like hell.
And then I thought of MR-GO ("Mister Go"), also known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

"The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) is a 36-foot deep, 500-foot bottom width, man-made waterway authorized by the River and Harbor Act of 1956 and the Water Resources Development Acts of 1976, 1986 and 1996. The MR-GO extends from the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal to the 38-foot depth contour in the Gulf of Mexico. Construction of the channel began in 1958 and the channel was completed in 1968. The channel was dredged through shallow bays, coastal marshes and cypress swamps. Its construction was authorized by Congress to provide an emergency outlet from the Mississippi River in the interest of National defense and general commerce and to provide a safer and shorter route between the Port of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico."
Many outside of New Orleans are not aware that the now nearly-unused MR-GO was responsible for much of the widespread and devastating flooding in New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard Parish. Not only has its creation resulted in saltwater intrusions that have devastated wetlands (our natural defense from storms), but it also acted as a pressurized funnel for storm surge from Katrina. The MR-GO has not only not served its intended purpose, then; it also contributed to the deaths of hundreds of residents in the areas impacted by Katrina's surge, including a man who lived in my now-home.

As I walked back to my house, I started to get a bit of that crazy-feeling I had three years ago--the one I got when I was in the Chicago airport and--bam--it hit me that this Katrina-thing was really happening. I showered, made breakfast, watched the latest weather update, felt crazy again, fed the cats--including Mister (or Missus) Stripey-Pants, whom we believe to be a pre-K kitty on his/her umpteenth life--and went to work, where I tried to actually work. Mostly, though, I clicked back and forth between and

In my fiction writing workshop, I made an assignment which would be due the Wednesday after Labor Day, "Assuming, of course, that we're here." My students laughed when I said that, but not in a ha-ha way. They--we--laughed nervously. We didn't look at each other. We looked at out notebooks and doodled. We looked at their hands. I told them that if we had to evacuate, I would be happy to teach online. I didn't tell them that I would be happy to do it largely because a) if Gustav makes a direct hit, my home will probably flood, but I will have to keep in paying my mortgage, which means that b) I will HAVE to keep teaching, whether I like it or not.

Later, I and two of my colleagues had a meeting with the director of distance learning at UNO. We were discussing ways to streamline the process of administering tests in our online classes, which inevitably led to references to "The Katrina Semester," when anyone with access to a computer (and a shred of mental stability) was forced to teach online. Inevitably Gustav came up, and the new director--a lovely woman from Florida who has somehow avoided ever evacuating for a hurricane--asked if she really needed to make evacuation plans. The pre-K three of us looked at each other, incredulously: uh, YEAH! We gave her a list of areas to call for hotel reservations. We told her to remember to bring more than three days worth of clothing. We talked about Last Time. Mike had been living in Chalmette. He lost everything. Laura and I both survived with little to no damage.

Then, Laura said, "Sarah, didn't you just move to the Lower Ninth Ward?" When I told her that I did, and that I was afraid of what could happen because the Corps has yet to close MR-GO, Mike emitted a sound that sounded to me like a cross between, "Good luck" (as in, "Good luck ever getting the Corps to do ANYTHING) and "Oh, fuck."

After my meeting, a student of mine from my workshop dropped by to tell me that there is a vacant apartment downstairs from them where Simon and I can stay if we don't want to evacuate, but don't want to stay in the Lower Ninth Ward. I thanked her but said it was more likely that we'd drive to Atlanta. I asked what her plans were. She said she and her husband would drive to Chicago--an 18-hour drive--to stay with friends. I told her they could come to Atlanta, instead, if she didn't want to drive 18-hours away. We exchanged numbers.

Afterwards I spent too long looking at storm graphics again. Then, I made the mistake of reading this:

"If Gustav heads into southeast Louisiana, scientists and engineers agree that large swaths of the region could be at great risk of flooding from even a moderate storm surge, especially neighborhoods near the Industrial Canal and on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.

More than $2 billion in repairs and improvements made to the system since Katrina cracked it open three years ago have strengthened some weak spots. In particular, floodgates on three New Orleans outfall canals -- two of which broke through their floodwalls causing catastrophic flooding during Katrina -- should protect neighborhoods from surges flowing through Lake Pontchartrain. And new levees are giving protection to the Company Canal and Harvey Canal north of Lapalco Boulevard.
But almost $13 billion in work remains to be done before the region is protected from a 100-year storm -- about the size of Hurricane Rita -- and that means much of the hurricane protection system remains at risk.

In many cases, there's nothing that can be done to beef up inadequate flood defenses if Gustav strikes early next week. East of the Mississippi River, for example, the system's Achilles heel remains the Industrial Canal area, where $695 million worth of structures are planned at the confluence of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. But that work, still being designed, won't start to provide any storm surge protection until this time next year.

Despite some higher Intracoastal Canal levees and new armoring against erosion, communities all around the Industrial Canal remain exposed to the potential for major flooding" (italic mine).

I live one block from the Industrial Canal.

On my way home from work, I felt stupid for offering to take in my student in. While 18 hours is a long way to drive, at least she has a place to go. There will be people who don't--a lot of them in my neighborhood. What will the Taylors do? I know that last time they stayed with a family in Wyoming, but Mrs. Taylor said it was "too dry" for her, and she missed the south terribly. We could take them.

Or what about UNO's international students? This summer, a student of mine from Nicaragua wrote a paper on the inadequacy of the University of New Orleans' evacuation plan--about its failure to address international students' needs. She described the scene after Katrina, the "panic" felt by students who had only limited English speaking and comprehension skills and who were ultimately left to fend for themselves. Her paper pinpointed problems in the current plan. That plan offers to evacuate students who have nowhere to go by bus to a shelter outside the evacuation zone. There:

"Students can expect to share an open gym floor without cots in a nonairconditioned building with extremely limited resources. Working bathrooms will be available but could become disabled. At the offcampus evacuation site, water and prepackaged
military meals, Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), will be supplied in limited quantities." (See UNO's Student Housing Campus Evacuation Plan.)

When my student called to find out more about what international students should do to get on the bus, she learned that it would take just 50 students to safety. There are 750 international students attending UNO. I should take those students, I thought. Who else could I save?
As I was crossing the Claiborne Avenue bridge, getting a glimpse of some of the Make It Right (or "Brad Pitt") houses--several of which now boast solar panels and are nearly finished--my mother called. She told me she thought Gustav was just going to blow away--not blow us away, but just break up and stay away from us, altogether. She said she didn't know what it was--maybe her "mother's intuition"--but that she just didn't feel like this was going to be All That Bad. I said I wished I shared her feeling. Then, I launched into a rant against the Corps and against MR-GO. I was raging, which probably scared my mom more than it did me. I hadn't realized how angry I was--how angry I am.
When I got home, I did as the paper told me: I placed a dated newspaper on the floor and started taking pictures. The newspaper will allow us to prove to the insurance company that the pictures are post-K, as those bastards the insurance companies will evidently give us hell about paying for repairs if we can't prove the home has been repaired since Katrina.

Later, as I made dinner, I watched the neighborhood emerge for sunset. Mr Taylor was having a Heineken and a cigarette on the porch. Damone swerved down the block on his "Whipstick" scooter. No one seemed to be freaking out like I was--which may not necessarily be a good thing, but at least it made me feel better. The sky was a crazy-beautiful pink/purple/orange, and it made me feel better, too.

After we ate, Simon and I walked up to the levee to watch the sky turn colors and to imagine a lifetime of sunsets on the levee. I brought a cup of wine and worked on smiling. A group of young boys talked to the National Guardsmen who were parked on the levee--still here helping out after Katrina--and we overheard the Guardsmen ask the boys about what they were going to do for Gustav. They didn't seem to know.

This morning, I got up to walk along the levee again. Screw mind-clearing; I just walked. I walked past my neighbor's house, where a truck had arrived with a load of sheetrock. Adolf renovated one house already, and now he is close to finished with his second--the one that he and his wife will move in to when it's done. It's a huge a beautiful home, and I was happy to see the sheetrock, as that always signals that you're getting close to done. I hope he does not have to do it again. I hope we don't.

When I got to school, I took a picture of the sign I walk past every day. Someone in the department put it up, I am sure. Today it was both funnier and meaner than ever before:

Later, at the beginning-of-the-semester faculty meeting, everyone was talking about the uncanny echoes of three years ago. That meeting had been held the Friday before Katrina's landfall. Three days later it was the way it was--the way it now is. Tomorrow's department party is cancelled. One colleague, whose husband directs a suicide hotline, says they will leave tomorrow. I didn't hear from anyone else yet.
Just a moment ago, the man who has been making our dining room table sent an email. He said we will need to pick up the table by Saturday if we want to guarantee that our table will be safe. We don't have room for it, sadly. We will need to take people, instead.


LaPartera said...

Sarah, I am sending calm to you and to Gustav. Thinking of you!

Love, Mickey

Brownie said...

Hey Sarah,

Just wanted to let you know that Simon and you are in my thoughts... and you always have a place to stay in Ohio!