How I learned to fear the rain.
New Orleans streets flooded on August 5. Photo by Cheryl Gerber
It's raining hard again here in New Orleans, and my heart's beating like an anxious dog's. I have spent the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week trying to talk my 80-year-old father into evacuating his home north of Houston, and also thinking about all the water in my life.
My heart didn't used to freak out at the sound of rain, not even in the years after Katrina. That was a onetime tragedy from which New Orleans would bounce back and then never let that happen again, or so we told ourselves. My heart's painful, triggered beating began just a few weeks back into this summer, when New Orleans filled up with water again after a simple hard rain. Sans warning, several of my friends lost their cars, and many of their houses took on water. The clubhouse of our legendary African American carnival krewe, Zulu, flooded to just under Katrina levels.
The saddest flood story I heard came from my young friend Gregory, who stopped by my house Monday morning with a box of pancake mix in his hand. A native New Orleanian, Gregory has the tendency to put the good news first, and sometimes even exclude the bad news altogether. It seemed strange that he just wanted to eat pancakes with me at my house, so after we'd shared a post-breakfast blunt, I prodded him until he finally shared the bad news: After finding a great new apartment, Gregory had rented a U-Haul and packed it with every single thing he owned. That afternoon it rained ten inches, filling the streets and Gregory's U-Haul with several feet of water. He lost all of his belongings at once, just as he had during Katrina. Luckily for U-Haul, it'd sold Gregory every type of insurance except flood. His new apartment also flooded, so now he had nowhere to stay, nowhere to cook his pancakes.
After that flood, the water slowly, very slowly, drained away, and it came to light that several of the turbines that power New Orleans's most important pumps were dead—two had died at the beginning of this year's hurricane season, and another back in 2012. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is president of the Sewerage and Water Board that maintains the pumps, had his spokespeople tell the local paper, "If he would have been properly notified [that the pumps were broken], he would have acted as he has in the past when serious situations confront the city." Landrieu fired the top two officials on the S&WB, but that hardly absolved him of responsibility for the mess. (A neighbor of mine who has worked for S&WB for several decades believes that Landrieu definitely would've gotten emails about the pumps.)
But figuring out whose fault this all is won't help Gregory or other New Orleans flood victims. "That would involve hiring experts to find the cause of the [flood]," I was told by New Orleans attorney Clifford Caldone. "Then if you do win, you're going to be put on a back burner of people waiting to get payouts from the city. There are like 800-something people on that list. One or two are owed like $10 million. I have a case I won, and I am around 300 on that list. I don't expect to see that money before I die. So most seasoned lawyers wouldn't even take cases against the city."
New Orleans's pumps remained broken for weeks, right in the middle of hurricane season. And my heart began beating every time it rained, even after the pumps came back online just days before Harvey hit Texas. I've lived on the Gulf Coast my whole life and always appreciated the beauty of heavy Southern summer storms. Now I feel as if any single thunderstorm could kill everyone I know and love.
Houston filling with water, though, was something I never imagined.
Houston is where New Orleans runs for safety when we flood. After Katrina, the people of Houston gave me not only meals and dry towels but also a good newspaper job, a house of our own to live in, even some farmland on which to keep the pet goat we'd dragged along. Despite George W. Bush's presence looming over that entire horrid event, none of the dozens of Texans who helped us ever mentioned politics. Folks who'd lived there for generations proved to me that Houston—though spread out and hard to love—has a world-class art scene, amazing music and food, and a culture that practices heartfelt camaraderie and helpfulness. My God, the helpfulness—I still cry sometimes thinking of it.
And exactly 12 years after Katrina, my dad is stuck on a big green property just outside of Houston, surrounded by man-made lakes on every side. Water has already closed off all the roads to the grocery store that he neglected to visit before Harvey hit. I called the emergency services in the town where he lives, and they promised to use a military vehicle to go check on him and offer him a way out. In the end, he would not leave with them, because ending up stuck in water to your armpits never seems possible until it has happened to you. My dad has now become all of those people that he and others criticized for not evacuating New Orleans when they had the chance before Katrina.
I couldn't sleep last night thinking about all this water coming at all of us from every direction. At midnight, I had to rise and go to a bar for a deadening sip of whiskey to slow my heart. My favorite bar though was polluted with TVs and so inescapable images of Houston drowning. Instead of relaxing, I began thinking of Katrina again and how we experienced the drowning of New Orleans from afar in dry Houston, all of it filtered through the media's lens. I remember horrible Nancy Grace reporting falsely that our neighborhood was under 14 feet of water—when in fact ours was one of the only neighborhoods to remain dry. More recently, Facebook has closed that media gap: I now know within minutes what New Orleans neighborhoods are actually flooding. I have lately watched my friends' houses fill with water on Facebook Live. Yay, technology. At least it's news I can trust.
My dad, however, doesn't have Facebook, so I am at the mercy of this bar TV. My mom's giant family is also from the Corpus Christi area, and I recognize many of the underwater overpasses and neighborhoods on the screen. It feels like the last decade of my life has been reported on TV in the form of all these Southern disasters—from Katrina (when mentions of the Ninth Ward appeared in SNL sketches), to the massive BP oil spill fuck-up, to the flood that fucked over Gregory. Now the camera that's been following my family has panned over to my dad in Texas. What the camera shows now looks like Houston's apocalypse, except with three times the water of Katrina, affecting far more people.
And the newscaster reminds me, "This is just the beginning."
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