Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, 5:30 p.m., New Orleans
In the Bywater, the New Orleans neighborhood where we live, families scrambled on Monday to board up windows and tie shutters closed with baling wire. A few left town, but not many.
Even at its worst, Hurricane Isaac was only predicted to be a Category 1 storm. So people stayed home and cooked big pots of red beans and gumbo. It’s what city officials now call “sheltering in place.” Some native New Orleanians believe that staying put during a storm is an almost-sacred tradition. They fill the bathtubs with water, in case they need it to flush toilets. They stock up with charcoal so they can grill once the power goes out. And they cook enough to keep people satisfied until life gets back to normal.
Seven years ago, it was a different story. Katrina was a Category 3 when it made landfall, but because it threatened to be even stronger, many cars crowded the freeways and people left town in larger numbers. In some ways, it was a never-before-seen exodus, although it was portrayed otherwise in subsequent days.
The people who stayed behind felt like they’d survived the worst. But then they saw the water rise—the result of the failed federal levee system that deluged 80 percent of the city. It was the floodwaters from the levees that left people stranded.
When “Mama Rose” Glasper stepped into a boat from her porch in the 7th Ward, her children debated taking her husband’s ashes with her. “No,” she said. “Papa would never evacuate. Leave him here.”
It wasn’t so easy for me to leave, either. As people were packing their cars to evacuate back then, I was in an uptown hospital in labor. My son, Hector Campbell, was born Aug. 28, 2005—one day before Katrina hit. Like all kids in town, Hector has been out of school all week. He’d hoped to bring cupcakes to school on Tuesday to celebrate birthday number 7; instead we invited over a few neighbors, most of them boring adults like me, and he blew out seven candles just as the winds from Isaac’s outer bands began to buffet the city.
Hector has no memories of New Orleanians being rescued from rooftops in 2005, but those memories made my northern friends and relatives jittery this week as I told them that we weren’t evacuating, even as Isaac threatened in the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, Wednesday, after a night of fierce winds that caused our circa-1890 house to creak, I woke up to see downed trees on nearby streets. Our backyard in the Bywater is piled with branches. Whenever the wind picks up, shingles fly off an absentee landlord’s roof down the street.
The worst has now passed; Isaac was downgraded to a tropical storm a couple of hours ago. But the wind is still magnificently strong. Tops of trees still sweep toward the ground every few minutes, as if doing calisthenics. Objects are still flying through the air and so the streets are empty—a rarity for New Orleans, where stoop sitting is considered a way of life.
The biggest threat to the city right now may be stir-craziness. The power went out in nearly every neighborhood last night—ours went dark around 4 a.m. And until the winds die down, utility trucks won’t put repair people into aerial buckets. On my battery-powered radio just now, a Louisiana official told us to “mentally prepare” for a week without power. There’s no television, no Internet, refrigerators that you open only when you absolutely need something in them, phones chargeable only through the cigarette lighter in your car.
There’s no air conditioning to temper the muggy August weather, and no pumps to deal with wastewater, which means you only flush when completely necessary and definitely no showers, lest the sewer lines back up into the streets.
But still we feel pretty safe. On my block we’ve been checking on each other, peeking heads out of doors and waving, swapping charcoal and candles, boiling water on a camp stove to make coffee for everybody. Isaac is taking his sweet time to leave us. He’d slowed to 6 mph at one point, almost stalling overhead.
Rance Jefferson, Sr., my neighbor across the street, said he knew a woman who’d moved here after Katrina. For her, staying wasn’t an option, he said. She packed up her car and drove out of Isaac’s reach.
He had tried to convince her otherwise, he said. “I told her, ‘You might want to experience a hurricane. That’s what we do.’”