(first posted on the Huffington Post August 29th, 2008)
“I’ve got an idea,” said my friend Larry, “why don’t you come down and ride out Gustav with me? Don’t you want to experience a hurricane firsthand?” These plaintive questions were on my voicemail. I listened as I walked uphill on 145th in Harlem, laughing the entire length of the message. Larry’s a good friend, but no way in Hades was I going to get on a plane and head directly for trouble, at least not of the meteorological kind “Cause I’m not going anywhere,” Larry declared.
I laughed, but I knew he was serious. I also knew how this kind of attitude gets skewered by outsiders, many unaware of the mental gymnastics a person must make when preparing to face down a hurricane. From the outside, it’s so easy to forget that evacuations cost money. That you need a place to go. That you must concern yourself with the wellbeing of loved ones who may be too unhealthy, and well, too crotchety to travel. That you don’t want to leave your home and your businesses unattended, that you want to be there to repair any damage mid-storm. And then there’s the pets…
Larry has a cat, as well as a beautiful home near City Park, and a business in the Central Business District. I can understand his desire not to abandon all that’s his, especially as of today, when the slow-moving Gustav could land anywhere. But as forecasts change, his decision may no longer remain justified. As his friend, I don’t panic for him — yet.
But I feel for my friends who must make their decisions on the very day of the anniversary. As my friend Michael wrote me: “Emotionally, it’s a very overwhelming feeling to be bombarded with urgent TV broadcasts of the regional storm preparation on the anniversary of the LAST storm.” Knowing how most of my friends down there have either flirted with, or fallen into depression over the last three years, I know this time is drenched with anxiety. That they’re natural “get up and go” might be sapped.
This morning, I also spoke with my friend Suzanne who has decided not to leave — yet — because her ailing mother is too frail to move. She shared her contingency plans, including checking her mother into a nearby hospital. “If things worsen, I’ll reconsider [leaving],” she said, “but this storm does not look like another Katrina. There can’t be two Katrinas in a lifetime.”
I hope to God she’s right.
This Katrina anniversary is not like the others — neither for Louisiana residents, nor for me. This is the first Katrina anniversary where Gulf Coast residents await an approaching hurricane. Families across Louisiana weigh their options, figuring out what they should do. Many will forestall decision-making until the last possible moment, hoping the storm will shift, making evacuation unnecessary. Some will book their rooms elsewhere and just go, trying to treat this as a vacation, hoping that this time, it will remain as such. Depending on what kind of mandatory evacuation orders are given, some may be evacuated out of town by government-promised buses and trains, as well as concerned friends and neighbors. Others will simply remain. If there is any benefit to Gustav landing during the RNC convention, it must be that this time the response will be both competent and energetic from the federal level (yes, hope springs eternal).
For the first time, I count friends as among those making these decisions. This wasn’t the case before Katrina. I knew nobody who lived in Louisiana. Hurricane evacuations were total abstractions, the gritty details foreign to me. I have since worked on a Katrina oral history project (www.thekatrinaexperience.net), and through this work, have made a few wonderful, deep friendships. I now join the millions across the country who worry for their loved ones on the Gulf Coast, wondering what they will do, hoping they will be OK, trying to offer whatever assistance we can.
I am going to keep Suzanne’s hope in my heart. Hope that this is not another Katrina, hope that there will be no devastating landfall and 30foot+ storm surge, and that the levees will hold.
But, when it comes to the levees, we should not have to operate only on hope. We should not be afraid of the truth. And the truth appears to be that there were deep construction flaws in the New Orleans levee system, as designed by the Army Corps of Engineers http://www.levees.org/factsheet. The fact is, Americans all across the country live near Army Corps of Engineers’ designed levees. How many floods will take before we focus our objective investigative powers on these systems?
Three years later, we’re still calling for an 8/29 Commission. Please visit www.levees.org to see how you can help. It’s important for Speaker Pelosi and for your representatives to know that we want an independent commission to get to the bottom of what really happened with the levee failures. Let this be part of our push to rebuild America’s infrastructure. Let this be one small way you reach out and help New Orleanians on this anniversary.