Scenes from a Hurricane Party, August 2005

“Katrina’s a whore!”

It was Stacey — another close friend of ours, was staying at a house nearby on Hennessey Street for the storm. We all looked up and cheered as she walked through the front door of the Toulouse House. By the sound of it, her arrival officially ended the pre-hurricane preparation and began the hurricane party with that one, extremely eloquent affirmation.

Marcus turned away from the stove to wave to Stacey. She returned the gesture, and Marcus said, “Dinner is served. Grab a plate out of the box and dig in.” He pointed to another cardboard box, similar to the one upstairs in the closet, sitting on the kitchen counter next to the stove. It contained plastic plates, napkins, disposable utensils, and a box of trash bags.

I was starving, and by the way everyone else got in line for dinner, I wasn’t alone. Buffet style, we each grabbed paper plates and plastic forks out of the box and filled our plates with spaghetti and the Bolognese sauce in turn. As I loaded up my plate, the smell rising from my heaping pile of noodles and sauce was intoxicating. Marcus was a bad-ass cook. Always had been.

With a full plate I sat down on the carpet in front of the television. It was time to get another dose of Katrina coverage, so I pushed the power button. The image on the screen was a wide shot of Interstate 10 choked with automobiles. According to the caption, the video was shot earlier in the day during the evacuation rush. The picture cut to a live view of the same roadway, and it was as empty as the rest of the city felt. I was immediately happy for Tyler, knowing the New Orleans evacuation plan adjustments made for Katrina worked this time. Not lingering on the vacant roadway, the program cut to the line of people waiting to get into the Superdome.

None of them looked excited to be there. I didn’t blame them. It looked like they’d been standing there for quite some time, frustrated faces and disheveled piles of belongings at every turn. As the massive line of people holding suitcases, blankets, and small children cut off the screen, I got to see what I was looking for. The meteorologist took center stage. A familiar map of the Gulf Coast appeared in vivid blue and green on the screen, and the bite of pasta I was chewing on got stuck in my throat.

This does not look good at all. It’s only been a few hours since I pulled my homemade tarp over the computer, and since then, nothing changed in our favor.

I coughed and got the turkey Bolognese back under control. Katrina’s eye was still bearing down directly towards the city, but now the storm track was narrowed to a direct pathway. It was an easy analysis for me.

This thing is going to come directly through New Orleans. Fuck.

According to the news, her winds were holding at over one-hundred and fifty miles per hour, and gusts close to the eye were over two-hundred.

As usual, everyone was now sitting around the television, and I glanced at the faces of my friends. They all appeared more intent on the plate of food in front of them than the exceptionally large hurricane heading straight for us. Everyone’s expression were calm; almost unconcerned.

What are they thinking?

Do they understand what could happen in a direct hit by a Category Five hurricane?

Do they care?

Do they need more salt in their Turkey Bolognese?

Mine tasted great, but I kept asking myself the first few questions over and over again while finishing my dinner. Afterward, I tossed my paper plate in the trash, and walked outside for a cigarette. As I was pulling the wrapper off of a fresh pack of Marlboro Mediums, my phone rang.

If I knew answering my phone would consume the next two hours with needless fear-mongering and anxiety I wouldn’t have done it. Seriously, we had enough crazy shit coming down the road. I didn’t want to add to the nerves we all certainly were feeling. But I didn’t know that, so I did what you do when a phone rings.

I answered it.

The first call was from my grandmother. Tyler told her I was leaving the last time she talked to him. I understood his reasoning. He didn’t want to deal with the backlash for my decision. I told my grandmother Tyler was wrong, and I was staying, and by revealing my plans to weather the storm, I touched off a barrage of family phone calls that would become legend.

No one understood.

I was asked why, over, and over again.

I was yelled at.

Cried to.

Pleaded with.

We love you, why would you do this?

I love you guys too, I will be safe.

You’re smarter than this.

You can trust me then, I know what I am doing.

Tyler left, why didn’t you?

All of my things are here, my friends.

You’re a fool.

I am prepared.

How can you do this to us?

It’s not about you at all. It is about me.

Are you not watching the news?

Like a hawk, believe me.

Your grandmother is worried.

Dad is worried.

Your sisters are worried.

Everyone is worried.

Shit, I’m worried too.

Jared, please leave. I don’t want you to die.

I will be fine. I have done this before.

Get out!

I am staying.

We don’t understand you.

You don’t need to. You just have to trust me.

It is going to be bad, really bad.

They always say that.

This is different.

It is not. I have been through this before.

Not like this.

Exactly like this.

What about the Superdome?

What about it?

They say it is a safe shelter.

Really?

Yes. If you have to stay, you need to go there.

Well…Let me talk about it with the group.

We all love you.

I love you too. I need to go.

Two hours and countless conversations after I answered my phone it finally stopped ringing.

“It’s about time you hung up your fucking phone.” Marcus was looking at me. “You’re making us all crazy, sit down. Relax.”

Vicki patted the mattress next to where she was sitting. Telling me to sit down.

Dan handed me a Jack and Coke, “Here drink this. Calm down man. It’s all right.”

“Sorry.” I eagerly took the drink, “I think my entire family believes we are going to die down here.” Toasting the air I said, “Katrina, spreading insanity throughout the nation one phone call at a time.” I finally sat down.

Vicki said, “That’s better.” Apparently I was pacing throughout the entire Toulouse House while talking with my family. I felt horrible for being the anxious one of the group, but I could not shake the ominous feeling left behind by the phone conversations. I was nervous, the phone call had got me thinking about the worst. I stood up as quickly as I sat down and went outside to smoke.

Vicki watched me jump up, and shook her head. “Boy, you are certainly jumpy tonight. Chill out a bit, ok?” I didn’t respond.

From the porch, I could tell the sun had set during my marathon phone conversations, and the sky, which was clear all day, was in motion now. Clouds reflecting the light from the city with an orange glow were in slow rotation and contrasted against the black night sky. There was no rain, but the wind was starting to pick up.

It may have been the lingering affects of the phone calls, but I felt something in the air.

You know what that something is. It is the same reason you didn’t hear any birds in the sky today. The same reason you have an odd pressure building in the back of your skull.

You are still an animal, with instincts. Just feel the what the hair on the back of your neck is telling you right now.

You can sense the storm coming.

I was staring at the sky, fascinated and frightened by the steady movement of the clouds, when Dan came outside to join me. He must have seen me looking up, and walked to where I was standing. He followed my gaze to the clouds and said, “So this is the start of it,” his words escaped around the edges of the cigarette he was lighting.

“I guess so. It is hard to believe we can see the outer cloud bands already. The eye isn’t supposed to hit until tomorrow morning sometime.”

Dan got his cigarette lit, “She’s a big bitch isn’t she?”

“God-damn huge.” I said, and we smoked in silence, both looking at the sky.

Halfway through my cigarette I turned to Dan. I said, “I have a question for you.”

“What’s that?”

“If the eye continues to head in this direction, do you think it would smart to head to the Dome?”

He shrugged. “What do you think?”

I figured Dan would have vetoed the idea, and since he didn’t, I elaborated. “I don’t know. On one hand we would be stuck inside with thousands of other people for the night. That would suck. But on the other hand, if Katrina hits us as hard as they’re saying on TV, there is a good chance we might not make it. I mean, if the eye hits directly on New Orleans, it would be like a thirty-mile wide tornado.” I held up my hands. “I don’t know…just thinking out loud”

“Well,” Dan looked like he was thinking it over. “What do you think the others want to do?”

Good question. I guessed neither Marcus nor Vicki wanted to leave. Stacey was staying at a different house. Apollo didn’t have a vote, and Keith was reading his book again. No way to tell which side he would fall on.

I answered Dan’s question. “I didn’t say anything to them about it yet, I was just thinking about the option ever since the news report during dinner. It’s going to get bad tomorrow. I’m sure of it.”

Dan seemed to be contemplating my idea. He said, still thinking. “The Superdome might not be safe either. There is nothing blocking the winds downtown.” The houses in our neighborhood were packed tightly one next to the other, creating a shield from the wind. “But it is a good idea to keep in mind”

I was glad. “True. Either way, it’s an idea. I think the crowd will go if we all decide it is the right thing to do as a group.”

“Are you going to say something now?”

“I think I’ll mention it when I get back inside. Before we all start drinking with purpose.”

“Right. At least you can get the general idea about how they would feel about it.”

“You want to do it now?” Dan seemed interested in the answer from the group.

“Why not.” I flicked my cigarette towards the street and headed back inside. Dan followed.

Marcus, Stacey, Keith, and Vicki were busy setting up a game of Monopoly, and all looked up at Dan and I as we walked inside.

I started my little speech.

“So I just want to say this and see how you all feel about it.” Vicki, Marcus, Stacey, and Keith focused on me. Apollo looked up at me in the usual dog-head-cocked kinda way for a second as well, but quickly turned away and started licking his crotch.

Thanks for the support Apollo. I would have given you a vote too…

“I was just talking to Dan outside and wanted to say it may be a smart choice to go to the Dome if it looks like the eye is going to directly hit us.”

“Yeah right.” Vicki spoke up first. “I’m not going to the Dome. Did you see the line of people waiting to get in that place? No way.”

Marcus followed on her heels. “Fuck the Dome. No sir. I’m staying right here with the food and liquor.”

Stacey and Keith said nothing, but shook their heads in immediate agreement with Marcus and Vicki. My idea wasn’t a popular one. I tried to rationalize. “I don’t want to go either, but we all have to realize if it gets as bad as they say it is going to get, there is a chance we might not survive this thing. No matter how safe this house feels it probably won’t make it through a direct hit by the eye.”

Marcus continued shaking his head no. Vicki was done with the conversation apparently; she had focused her attention on counting out Monopoly Money.

I was about to give up on the idea, but Dan made another attempt at getting everyone to think about it. “How about this idea? We make a decision tonight by eleven. Together. Based on what the news is telling us. We have to go or stay together, so we all will vote on it. How’s that?”

In slow, almost painful, progression, everyone nodded their heads yes. It was for me easy to tell Vicki and Marcus were not happy agreeing they might go, but at least it was a decision we all made as a unit.

That’s a good sign…no stragglers. We are all in this together.

Everyone looked miserable after I presented my idea. Like the fun was sucked out of the room. it was my fault.

You need to fix this. Morale is at an all time low.

So I yelled and smiled. Like I just won an award of some kind. “We are all going to survive!.” I went around the room, giving Marcus, Vicki, and Stacey each a sorta sarcastic hug in turn.

Ok. That’s better. Now go handle your family.

I snuck outside and made some phone calls.

I told my family we were going to the Superdome.

I told them there was no cell phone reception once I got inside.

I told them I loved them and would call them after the storm.

I said goodbye.

It was a complete lie — but it worked. They were happy I was going to the head to the official shelter at the Superdome, and regardless of what happens after the eleven o’clock vote, they would think I was safe there, in the hands of the authorities, protected from harm.

I felt better immediately.

To pass the time until the Superdome vote, everyone besides me began playing a heated game of Monopoly. I didn’t really want to play, so I figured I would get some video footage. I pulled out my camera and started filming a walk through of the apartment. Vicki, Marcus, Dan, Stacey and Keith were rolling the dice to see who would go first as I climbed the steps in search of my camera bag. When I reached the top, I remembered the importance of stockpiling water for flushing the toilets.

I called downstairs to Dan to let him know I was going to fill both bathtubs. He said to go ahead, and I started with the bathtub in the front bathroom. I turned on the water, pushed the drain cap on, and immediately heard water sneaking through a small gap in between the drain and cap.

Great. So much for that idea.

The bathtub’s slow leak was guaranteed when I cut off the faucet, and could hear water trickling out of the tub. I went to the back bathroom. I repeated the process to the same result. The back bathroom tub drain wasn’t sealed as well.

Shit. What am I going to do? Need to sort this out.

If the water service was shut off tomorrow, five adults trapped in a house during the peak of the hurricane wouldn’t be able to flush a toilet. I needed to figure out a way to make sure that didn’t happen. It was as scary a scenario as the weather. The solution came to me as I stared at the drain.

Ah yes, my old friend…Duct Tape.

I yelled down the steps to ask Dan if there was any tape somewhere around his house. He didn’t reply, but soon appeared at the bottom of the steps and tossed me a roll. After a decent portion of it was applied over both drains, I held my breath, and turned on the faucet.

My generic plumbing job was a success. As water poured into both bathtubs, the horrible image of two toilets full to the rim left my head. I loved duct tape even more than before. I promised myself to always have a roll within reach. A potentially sinister situation with the toilets avoided, I reverted to my original plan, pulled my camera out of it’s bag, and headed down the steps.

To my surprise, the monopoly game was over. The board and multicolored fake money was back in the box and propped against the wall. I asked Vicki, “What happened to the game?”

“We weren’t in the mood.”

Keith just kept to himself and went back to reading.

Vicki again. “Plus, Stacey headed home. She has to watch Hoss.” Hoss is Stacey’s mostly-Rottweiler, partially something else, dog.

“OK, I am going to get some film of the pre-Katrina party.”

“Cool.” She walked into the kitchen where Dan and Marcus were packing up leftovers from dinner.

She opened the fridge, grabbed a beer, and offered it to me.“Thirsty?”

I held up my video camera. “Let me do this first, I’ll have one afterward.”

Vicki cracked the beer, took a sip, and sat down at the breakfast bar. I hit record. The entire front room downstairs was empty, except for the television, currently broadcasting a report on the storm surge. Keith was reading his book while sitting against the wall, and the TV was close to him, so I filmed the news report to get a perspective on what we were watching. The blue and green map of the Louisiana coastline was on again, but this time there were graphics showing the storm surges Katrina would bring when she made landfall. All of the estimates were not very promising. Her winds would push at least fifteen feet of water onto shore and twenty six at most.

Not good. I think I heard the levees can only stop a storm surge of twenty feet.

I zoomed out from the flood forecast, and walked outside to see if I could get the sky to show up on film. It was pretty dark out though, but as soon as I stepped through the front door and onto the porch, the coolness of the air was apparent. The temperature dropped a few degrees since I was out here last, and a light rain was falling. The wind had picked up with the arrival of the rain, and the clouds were still glowing, reflecting the lights from downtown. The orange cloud bands were moving faster now, and in the same circular motion as the storm. Leaving the slowly, but surely, deteriorating weather, I turned my camera back onto the kitchen where Vicki, Marcus and Dan were talking and drinking while sitting at the breakfast bar. Vicki saw me first, and stared at the red “record” light slowly blinking on the front my camera.

She held up today’s newspaper. “Hey…get a picture of this.” The headline was KATRINA TAKES AIM and had a satellite picture of the storm printed on the front page. It was massive. So immense the entire Gulf was blanketed by her.

Aim? Katrina didn’t need to worry about aiming. Plenty of room for error there.

I turned the camera on Dan. “You know Dan, you can watch your daughter’s baptism if you start to get sentimental at any point.” The tape I was filming on had his daughter baptism recorded on the first twenty minutes of it.

“Try not to tape over it. Kri would kill me. If she doesn’t divorce me for staying in town for is thing.”

“Don’t worry. The baptism is only the first few minutes. I have forty minutes left, and an extra tape upstairs. We can keep the baptism.”

Dan could tell I was recording, and did his best reenactment of a Saints football commercial for the camera. The New Orleans Saints released a promotional spot featuring the team jumping up and down, pounding their chests, shouting, “We will protect this house!,” over and over again. By “house” they meant the Superdome, and overall it was a very effective commercial. I didn’t think the Saints would be good this year, but that was par for the course at this point. I turned the camera on Marcus, and he took sip of his drink and gave me the finger. We both laughed.

Following the footsteps of my earlier tour, I walked around the entire upstairs of the Toulouse House and recorded what would be our temporary shelter for the rest of the evening and tomorrow.

Video tour completed, I packed up my camera in the bag for safekeeping. It was time to drink.

And then, it was time for a smoke break.

On the porch it was raining a little bit harder. Halfway through my cigarette, Vicki shouted out to me. “Jared, come in here and sit down and watch this, they said there was going to be an update on Katrina’s path.”

“Good news?” I was skeptical.

“I don’t know, but it should be on soon.” I flicked my partially-smoked cigarette onto the front yard, walked inside, and sat down on the floor between Vicki and Marcus. Once again, the news cameras were on the line of people at the Superdome. It was obviously much longer, and the unhappy crowd was now standing in the wind and rain waiting for entry.

What is taking so long getting people inside? It seems pretty straightforward…you just open up the doors and let people in.

The scene at the Dome cut to a very excited Bob Breck, head meteorologist for Channel Six news. The satellite image of Katrina was the background, and I could see the solid outer rain bands were starting to hit New Orleans. She seemed even bigger the closer she got to land. I checked my cell phone for the time; eleven o’clock, still eight hours before the eye makes landfall. I glanced outside at the relatively moderate rain and wind. It was just a teaser.

Not even close to how bad it is going to get.

Bob looked like he was having a rough day. His hair was disheveled, the studio lights made him look pale, and he was nervously shifting a large white pen between both hands. But he sounded excited when he spoke. “We have a development here in the path of the hurricane. Can we get the map in motion please.” The giant storm began to move in the way satellite weather maps do. The picture would jerk ahead five frames and jump back to the starting point. Five steps forward, and then back. After two rotations Bob put his white pen to the screen. He was definitely excited about something. “Ok everyone, if you look at the eye, this was the original path of the storm earlier, making a direct hit on the west side of New Orleans.”

He took his pen and drew a line from the eye of Katrina through the marker on the map for New Orleans. A little white line appeared where the pen touched the screen. It looked like a football replay on television back when John Madden was using the pen to show how a running back broke through the line to score a touchdown. Bob was still talking. “A hit on this path would give us the highest winds and rain, and also the worst storm surge, which is estimated at twenty feet.”

I want one of those pens.

Bob continued to speak. “Now look closely at the last satellite image in this series. Over the last two hours, you will notice the tendency of a move to the North.” Magic pen on the screen, he did the thing we all hoped for. He drew a new storm track showing the hurricane passing to the east of New Orleans, taking us out of the way of a direct hit.

The crowd went wild.

We cheered as if the Saints just won the Superbowl on a long-ass field goal in the final minutes. It felt like we were cheering ourselves; our chance of survival.

Bob Breck, we love you. You are our new hero.

As the applause in the Toulouse House faded, Bob started backtracking. “Now I’m not saying this is a definite shift in the path of the storm, it could just be a northern jog before continuing on its original path. But it looks like we may miss a direct hit on downtown New Orleans. And even better, if the storm passes us on the east, we will be spared the most severe storm surge, which could have caused catastrophic flooding.” The coverage shifted back to the Superdome.

We all looked at each other and smiled. It was after eleven and Bob Breck, whom I had no idea was going to have a vote, decided with his little magic pen we would stay at the Toulouse House tonight, and not go to the shelter at the Superdome.

Thanks Bob, it was looking pretty scary at the Dome anyways. I can only imagine how many people watching this newscast just put you in their Top Ten lists at this very moment. Nice work.

Bob sent it back to the news desk. The two anchors thanked him, and said they were ending their live coverage in New Orleans, and the station would be broadcasting the local news program out of Baton Rouge for the rest of the evening. The end of the local broadcast did not bother me at all. Since this storm had started to make it’s slow path towards our home, there was barely a shred of good news about her. It was always the worst-case scenario. The end of the world. I wanted to hear some good news, and once I finally got my wish, watching any more news became a low priority.

Dan wanted to celebrate. “Shots?”

Everyone agreed, even Vicki, who had a tendency to avoid straight bourbon. He grabbed one of the bottles of Jack Daniels out of the freezer and brought it back to the group. After twisting off the lid, he handed it to me. Before raising the bottle to my lips, I paused. “You guys, I want to apologize about all the pacing and phone drama you had to hear earlier. I got a little freaked out when my thirteen-year-old sister told me to leave because she though I was going to die. I’m sorry.”

Marcus smiled and patted me on the back. “Don’t worry buddy. We’re not mad, just hurry up with those shots.”

I held up the whiskey. “To Bob Breck.” I held the bottle to my mouth, tipped it back, and enjoyed the classic burn of Jack Daniels whiskey wandering down my throat. It was the first drink I truly enjoyed all night.

Marcus, Vicki, Dan, and Keith each took a turn with the bottle, and after the round of shots, we continued the drinking and partying in a much lighter mood for the remainder of the evening. The hurricane party had officially started, Katrina be damned.

Dan bowed out first.

He brought both lawn chairs in from the front porch and placed them next to the stairs. On his way upstairs to go to sleep, he unplugged the television and carried it up with him. He didn’t say why, and I didn’t ask.

After Dan, we started to drop off to sleep one-by-one, and I ended up watching television upstairs, the last one awake. The volume was down all the way so I wouldn’t disturb the rest of the group as they slept. Vicki’s head was next to mine on the pillow we were sharing while lying on the carpet in the central room upstairs — she was sleeping, but I couldn’t just yet. It was close to one in the morning, and the Baton Rouge news broadcast, combined with the decent amount of booze I had put in my face, was doing it’s best boring me to sleep, which was a good thing. I wanted to get some rest for tomorrow. The anchors were reporting on things other than the hurricane, and it was odd but soothing; I had my fill of Katrina media for the day.

I looked out the small window at the back of the Toulouse House, the one that led to the roof. Through the small frame it was too dark to see anything very clearly, but the wind had intensified, and was brushing raindrops against the house occasionally. It was a soft, almost delicate, sound, a whisper of what tomorrow would bring. The temperature was low enough for me to put on a hooded sweatshirt Vicki had the foresight to pack for me. I pulled the hood tightly around my head and turned back to the television.

The news cut from a local story to a satellite image of the storm. It was in motion, doing the same jerky dance closer and closer to New Orleans, and then back to the it’s start. The eye still seemed to be heading north like Bob Breck said, but now the dot on the map representing New Orleans was completely obscured by the outer bands of the storm. The Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama was shrouded by Katrina; swallowed up by the size of her.

How much of a difference would a slight change in the storm track make?

Really. Don’t bullshit yourself.

Is it that much better? She’s huge. Look at the size of the fucking thing.

Katrina did her five-step dance and repeat over, and over, and over.

And I watched her.

Looking for a hint of turning. Looking for an answer on how bad tomorrow was going to be. Looking for anything. She was hypnotizing. It was everything to me at that point. And just as quickly as one of her jerky steps to landfall, it happened.

The power went out.

I blinked as a ghost of the weather map floated in front of my eyes in the pitch black upstairs. Eventually it disappeared, and it was just me and the darkness. Losing power in New Orleans was normal during any hurricane or tropical storm. The power lines get lashed by trees and eventually a transformer goes out. Or something.

But six hours before landfall?

I kept staring at the powerless, blank television screen, and sometime later, I fell asleep.

Thanks for reading about our little hurricane party…there’s more to it, of course. You can get the rest of the story here, if you’d like to hear it.