So we were on our way to New Orleans. But it’s gone now.
We found out on Sunday night, a little after everyone else did, while checking into a Best Western in Grants, New Mexico.
"Where you headed?"
"We’re driving to New Orleans."
"Uhh…No you’re not.
For a while we weighed the possibility of continuing on anyway. Maybe there’d be a lot of clean-up going on. Maybe it’d smell a bit. But surely they’d have things under control by Friday and they could probably use the tourist dollars.
That’s not how it turned out.
When we saw the enraged masses at the Superdome, the raw sewage, the windows being smashed and the fires being set, we decided it was best to give them some time to sort things out. The clincher was learning that part of I-10 had collapsed and there was really no reasonable way of getting close to the city anyway.
This left the problem, however, of how we were going to catch our flight to D.C., leaving out of New Orleans on Saturday. I called Delta’s support line and ended up speaking to a member of India’s burgeoning Customer Service caste in Hyderabad. She refused to deviate from her assigned script. The harder I tried to rattle her into being a human, the more she retreated into her automaton training:
"Sir, I have checked the departure information and it is telling me that your flight is leaving on time at 3:55pm on Saturday."
"Okay, but do you understand there’s been a hurricane? The city is flooded."
"Sir, I am looking at the departure information and your flight is leaving New Orleans as scheduled."
"Well I’m looking at CNN and there are dead bodies floating down the street. I don’t think we’re going to be on that flight."
"Sir, would you be interested in booking a hotel or rental car during your visit?"
We monitored the status over the next couple days and by the time we hit Austin, they’d officially cancelled all flights. We still wanted to get to D.C., so we booked a new flight leaving a day earlier out of Houston — Houston being the cheapest departure city that was near to our location. It ended up being a couple hundred dollars more than our original flight. So it goes.
We left Austin this afternoon for Houston, stopping for lunch at a place I’d heard about called the Salt Lick. The folks who run it have been serving barbeque using a family recipe they say dates back to the civil war.
We ate a couple plates full of gravy-soaked ribs, sausage, and sliced pork. By the end, we both wanted to curl up and take naps. The meal was delicious, but I could feel my insides struggling to digest all the meat and fat. I don’t quite get the appeal of food that wreaks such havoc on your insides. Maybe it’s an acquired thing.
As we drove into Houston, Sophie used the guide book to work out that all the cheap hotels were located around the Astrodome. We entered the area and immediately noticed a swarm of helicopters buzzing around the stadium.
"Is there a game on?"
"I don’t think this is about a game."
We got there early enough in the day that the hotels hadn’t all filled up yet. What’s more, they were discounting rooms by 25%. I feel a little guilty now as it suddenly occurs to me, writing this, that Sophie and I are taking warm beds away from a family that just lost their home and hasn’t bathed in four days…oops!
The halls of the hotel were populated by roving gangs — deeply unfriendly-looking kids wandering aimlessly with their shirts off, wearing skull caps, oversized jewelry (am I supposed to call it bling?) and all that stuff.
Some found their way to the hotel pool and started horsing around. It was pretty clear they weren’t guests, but none of the staff was willing or able to do anything about them. I’m not saying they should’ve been kicked out for playing in the pool, but management obviously wasn’t pleased with the situation. By nightfall they’d hired some off-duty cops to patrol the grounds, rifles in hand.
We went to our room, and being the racist white man that I am, I cleaned out our car of all valuables. There were just too many kids lurking around the parking lot with what I interpreted to be opportunistic looks on their faces.
Once we were settled, we took a walk over to the Astrodome to see what was going on. Soph didn’t feel good about gawking at all the desperate people, but since we were already there I felt justified in wanting to see what was happening with my own eyes.
As the sun went down, we watched the line of buses pouring in and the passengers streaming out. They were given wristbands and told to go into the Astrodome. A lot of them hung around the entrance. Some held signs listing lost family members they were still searching for. Some were asking for help. Others just wandered off. They’d been bused in, but they still hadn’t really been attended to.
If you want to see pictures of all this, go to CNN. I brought a camera, but my better judgment prevailed.
Over near the parking lot, away from the bus drop-off, there were a dozen or so vans filled with caged pets being unloaded. It was a surprise and a relief to see so many dogs and cats had been rescued and were doing okay, though they weren’t exactly enjoying themselves.
Next door to the Astrodome is Reliant Stadium, a smaller venue for the redundantly named Houston Texans. I guess they’re a college football team. It was a game day and they were treating it like any other, so we watched thousands of spectators flooding into the stadium while the situation a few yards away was quickly turning third world.
Some of the game attendees wanted to see what was going on, so they lined the balconies on the upper levels to get a view of the scene below.
We walked back to the hotel. By then, the evacuees who could afford $50 a night for a room had filled up the hotel. Some of them were congregating in the lobby to watch the news and share their stories. The news they had on was Countdown with Keith Olbermann, which, to add another layer of surreality, I was a guest on exactly two weeks ago.
A guy came into the lobby with his wife and two kids. They were wearing hospital scrubs given to them by the Red Cross to replace their dirty clothes. He told his story:
When the water came in, he took his family up into the attic with a cooler full of meat and some dry food as well as plenty of water and juice. They spent the first two days up there until the floodwater level started rising further. He smashed his electric fan through the attic window so they could escape, then waited on the roof. A boatload of looters passed by wielding shotguns and he convinced them to stop and carry his family downstream.
"That was their good deed," he said. "Whatever else they did, at least they saved us."
The boat dropped them off on dry land with a group of eleven others who were also stranded. He still had the food and water, but he now had to spread it among four times as many people. Hoarding was not an option. In two more days of waiting, he only had one glass of water. He couldn’t bring himself to ration what he gave his kids.
Fortunately, they were rescued by helicopter before their resources ran out, and brought to the Astrodome just as the first buses were departing for Houston.
He spoke angrily about the looting; watching kids run out of stores with booze, cigarettes, and nothing they actually needed. He said they were shooting at the rescue helicopters.
"Why would they do that?" I asked.
"Cause they don’t want anyone seeing what they’re up to."
Soph and I offered to help him and his family in any way we could. He said all they wanted was to bathe and sleep.
Another guy overheard us, came over and asked if we could give him a ride to Wal-Mart. He needed some pants, a toothbrush, and a few other basics. His name was Edgar.
Edgar is 63. He lived alone and drove a cab until both his house and means of income were destroyed. He has a daughter in New Orleans, another in Mobile, Alabama, and five grandchildren between them. He hadn’t yet been able to reach any of them.
"They’ll be okay," he said. "They take after their father. Resourceful."
Edgar didn’t leave with the first buses. He waited for one with AC, knowing that the ride would be more grueling without it than if he were to just sit and wait. As a result, he’d gotten one of the last rooms in the hotel. The cost wasn’t much concern to him. "I’m poor," he said. "But I’m not THAT poor. Just buried under plastic, like everybody else.
As we left the hotel in our rental car, Edgar looked out at the Astrodome. "There’s no way I’d go into that place. Uh uh! I’m better off on my own."
Up until a couple days ago, Edgar remained holed-up in his living room. "I’ve lived in New Orleans since I was a child. Rode out every storm since 1947. Thought I could ride out this one."
"When did you know you couldn’t?"
"When the levy broke and I heard that sound in the distance. It was the water, and it was saying, ‘I’mmmmm commmingggg to GET yoooouuuu!’"
He was surprisingly pragmatic about the whole thing. Losing his house wasn’t a big deal. The cab owner would probably make him pay for the car, but he’d manage. "The only thing I’m sad about losing is the family history. Photographs, documents, it was all in the closet. Gone now."
We wandered around Wal-Mart for an hour or so while Edgar shopped. It was a cultural experience in itself. I told Sophie of the fabled gun section. She was fascinated — snapping pictures while no one was looking. They don’t have that sort of thing in Australia.
I tried explaining that it’s as strange a thing for me to see as it is for her. The places I shop in generally don’t stock that sort of thing.
I remembered hearing about the Wal-Marts in New Orleans having all their weapons looted. Sakes alive! Has any modern city so quickly descended into a war zone? Phnom Penh, maybe. Parts of Europe during the Blitz. Somewhere in Africa on a daily basis. But still, this is fairly unprecedented.
We took Edgar to Denny’s for dinner. His body was normalizing after four days of survival mode. "My digestive system knew it had to conserve fluids, so I stopped urinating. Haven’t gone in two days."
His appetite kicked in and he was suddenly so tired he could barely eat through all the yawning. But he still had it in him to flirt with the waitress and get her to give him more butter sauce for his fish.
"If I’ve learned one thing in these past few days, it’s that my body has limits. When I was young I could do anything. But when that water came into my living room and I had to climb out, it took all I had to swing my legs up."
Edgar is a bit of a health nut, with a professed goal of living to 100. He drinks a protein shake every morning and eats mostly tofu and vegetables. The extra butter sauce was a reward to himself for what he’d been through.
We explained about our road trip. Told him we were leaving for D.C. in the morning.
"D.C. A lot of folks from Louisiana moved up there."
"That was a long time ago, huh?"
Yep. That about sums up it up. And it was the clincher for me. I realized I liked Edgar a lot. Not because of the situation he was in or even the way he handled it; twas the laconic deadpan that did it.
We took Edgar back to the hotel and said goodnight. He’s planning to stay with some relatives in Atlanta for a while, possibly some friends in Florida, then eventually he’d move back into his house. I hope he’s okay. And I hope he lives to at least 100.
Now that I’ve gone all sappy, I’m going to pop the bubble and rant about this donation stuff. Some folks have emailed me about putting a button on my site. That whole thing kind of irks me. I think we all know how to donate money if we want to, and I don’t need to remind you. It smacks of sanctimony.
Plus it would be hypocritical. Considering what I’ve spent on selfish travel pursuits, I haven’t donated a lot to charity. And I don’t feel that I can evangelize it to other people.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t be giving all they can. I’m just not in a position to tell anyone they should either. You do what you want. I don’t belong in the equation.
…I had a lot more written here about my feelings on the subject of charity — which were soured greatly by my visit to Africa last year. But since posting it I’ve realized I was being a prick. My arguments didn’t hold up on consideration. So I’ll step back from the deep end and give praise to the Patron Saint of Blogging for amendable journal entries.