Tomorrow is The Anniversary, which seems a strange way to refer to it, anniversaries generally being good things. Certainly there isn’t anything much to celebrate, which is what we usually do with anniversaries, unless you want to celebrate our continued survival, though with hurricane season only half over and a flood control system held together with duct tape, spit, and desperate hope, that feels a bit premature yet. No, this anniversary will be a day to remember and mourn, though I can’t recall any day in the last year when I forgot for even a second.
Still, I thought I’d go back over a year ago and try to remember those last normal days pre-K, maybe to recall what normal was, maybe to understand a little how and why things happened like they did.
On Tuesday, August 23rd, the tropical depression that would become Katrina formed east of Florida, around the Bahamas, not that we were really aware of it. I was furiously trying to accomplish two things before the next week came – get ready for my first full-time year at Loyola and finish renovating my house enough so I could move in at the end of the month. I’m pretty sure I spent Tuesday shopping for floor tile while letting the newly sanded and sealed wood floors cure.
Finding the tile proved difficult. Nobody had what I wanted in stock and ordering would take weeks, but I only had one week to move in, which required an installed bathroom, which required a bathroom floor. Finally, I found a store with some hexagonal white tile someone else had ordered and never picked up. I was disappointed with the lack of color or pattern, but Gavin came up with the brainstorm to get a pottery store to glaze and fire some of the white tiles for us. We found a place willing to give it a shot, though it was something they’d never done before and didn’t know how it would turn out. We left them some tiles to experiment with overnight.
Sometime in the morning of Wednesday the 24th, the tropical depression turned into a storm and got named Katrina, the eleventh named storm of the busiest hurricane season on record. It headed northwest.
Meanwhile, Gav and I liked the tile results and ordered a bunch more, which would take a day. I, no doubt, worked on my class syllabi since every summer, no matter how many times I swear it’ll be different, I’m always scrambling to get ready at the last minute. New Orleans went about its usual business, not really concerned about a storm that wasn’t headed in our direction and had to cross Florida still.
Sometime in the morning on Thursday the 25th, Katrina turned west, heading for southern Florida. Gavin and I picked up the tile, and my mom and stepfather flew in to help me pack and move. I was in a panic over this because I hadn’t even started. Less than a week before I was to move out of my crappy apartment and into the first house I had ever bought, and I was completely unprepared, so my mom and stepfather were coming to my rescue. I excitedly showed them the house for the first time, the newly painted walls and shiny floors, and then showed them the plans for the kitchen laid out all professional-like on graph paper. About the time I was doing this in the bar of their hotel, Katrina became a Category 1 hurricane a couple of hours before making landfall in southern Florida. It rolled over the Everglades and only briefly returned to a tropical storm before hitting the Gulf of Mexico six hours after its initial landfall. At this point, early Friday morning, it was still expected to turn north early enough to land somewhere along the Florida panhandle or perhaps Alabama.
So Friday Gavin and I laid tile, or, to be accurate, Gav laid tile and I cleaned up behind him. We carefully arranged the gray and red tiles in the pattern we had decided on, making only one mistake. (If I can save the floor and you can spot the mistake, you get a shot.) My parents, meanwhile, packed up my books, cds, kitchen things and a whole bunch of other stuff and moved it all over to the house. By the end of that day, with most everything moved but furniture and clothes and the tile laid, I was feeling like moving was something I could manage, especially since my parents weren’t leaving until Monday. As for the rest of New Orleans, everyone went to school and work while Katrina spent the day hanging out in the Gulf and not doing much of anything.
Saturday morning, Gav and I went back to the house to grout the floor. Once that was done, the plan was to get the bathroom fixtures installed and hook up the brand new stove that had been delivered the day before. The house would be livable, though lacking cabinets and a refrigerator and a kitchen sink, just in time for me to move in on the 31st. By the time we finished grouting and I got back to my apartment and turned on the news, Katrina had doubled in size and become a Category 3 hurricane now expected to strike close to New Orleans, and Nagin called for a voluntary evacuation. I told my parents to get to the airport and try to get a flight out. They tried all day, but in vain. They were either going to have to stick it out or find another way out. I went to Les Bon Temps with some friends for beers. This had, by the way, worked before. I remember sitting there drinking when another hurricane turned aside and headed east and a cheer went up around the bar, but no such luck this time. I woke up on Sunday to a mandatory evacuation.
I grabbed Albus the cat and set off to get my parents, packing maybe three days worth of t-shirts, the standard evacuation gear. We spent the day driving east out of New Orleans and then turned north and back west until we ended up in Jackson, Mississippi. During the drive, Katrina went from a Cat 3 to a Cat 5 in less than 12 hours, and grew until it was about 400 miles across. It was after hearing this that I called Brooke and left a message that went something like, “Well, it was a nice city to live in for a while.”
My mom called ahead to every hotel she could to get us a room for the night. I knew Gav and Allison were evacuating to Jackson, but I couldn’t get through to them to find out where exactly. By the time we got to a hotel that night, Katrina looked as big as the Gulf itself.
Monday morning, the outer bands of Katrina were lashing water and wind across Jackson, but I finally heard from Gav and Allison. I drove my parents to the airport where they picked up a rental car to drive to Memphis to catch a flight back to Virginia. Albus and I found Gav, Allison, Oscar and Vato (their dogs), Pele (their cat), and Little (the kitten they found while driving). By this time Katrina had weakened to Category 3 and come ashore near the mouth of the Pearl River at the Louisiana/Mississippi border. We all hunkered down in a lake house with a generator and watched the news.
As it turns out, Katrina did turn aside a little and we were spared the direct hit we feared. In fact, on the news New Orleans looked dry and seemed to have dodged the bullet yet again, through some combination of prayer, voodoo, and the luck of drunks. Little did we know that the levees had already breached and water was flooding into the city. That night, exhausted, relieved, and a little drunk, I went to bed vowing to go home the next day and “make sweet love to the levees,” which I thought had held.
The next morning, Tuesday the 30th, less than a week after the beginning of what would become Katrina formed in the Atlantic, we got up to find out about the flood, and then all the horror after. I never wrote about the before part, because I only started writing about this after that point. Until then, there wasn’t a reason. It was just another normal evacuation from a storm, perhaps a little more stressful than some but still not truly remarkable. The levee breaches shoved everything out of normal, though I didn’t know it until almost 24 hours later, and everything has stayed out of normal since.