Hurricane Katrina. Where shall I begin?

Well, I guess I should start on Sunday, August 28, 2005. That day, I was mostly asleep, as is normal for me because I work the night shift. Thus, I missed New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin issue his mandatory evacuation order. I didn't really realize that anything was wrong until I inexplicably woke up a few hours before I was due into work. I'd been up for a couple of hours when the power in my apartment complex in Metairie went out. At first I thought it was just my apartment's power that had gone out until I went outside, trusty Mag-Lite in hand, and noticed that there wasn't a single light on in any of the other apartments. "So this is it, then; this is the proverbial 'it.'" Even though it was only about 9:30 that night, I decided to drive downtown to the office building in which I work. There were no visible power outages on the way there, which was a bit reassuring, although there were also no cars going in either direction along the way, not even police cars.

Water was running; children were running
You were running out of time
Under the mountain, a golden fountain
Were you praying at the Lares shrine?

I got to work and parked where I usually do, on South Maestri Street, a one-way block-long affair which runs along the back of the building, between a public park and then North Maestri Street (also consisting of a single block), on which was a federal building and a post office. When I got to the revolving doors of my building, the overnight security staff was busying themselves bracing the doors with 2x4 boards, so I had to walk around to the front of the building to enter through the one non-revolving door to gain entry. The security guys paid me no mind, so I took the elevator up to the tenth floor, where my office and our company's massive datacenter lies.

Work progressed in a mostly normal fashion; the only indication that something was amiss were the very occasional hiccups in the building's power, which the UPSes took care of without an awkward glance. I'd reached the end of my full eight-hour shift when the power finally went out for good. Jim, the other night guy who doesn't normally work on Sundays, was there in preparation for the incoming storm, due to his distrust in the 250-year-old building in which he lived. He spent most of the night trying to catch some sleep on the floor of his office while I went about my nightly work duties. At approximately 5:30am, the power quit. Our diesel generator kicked itself on, keeping us in business.

But oh your city lies in dust, my friend

As Monday morning dawned, it became apparent that this was to be no normal blink-and-you-miss-it hurricane. As the sun shown through the thick, cyclonic clouds, we witnessed windows breaking. The same was happening to all the other buildings we could see from our office windows (some of these buildings had holes punched through their outer walls), which were gradually but brutally beginning to shatter. These windows were of the double-layer variety; the outer layer was UV-treated plastic, and they were the first to go. When an inch-and-a-half thick window breaks, it wants you to notice it, I thought. The breakages sounded like major ordnance going off very close to where our desks lay. As it turned out, the company's CEO, Sig, the CTO, Donny, and our security specialist Mike (and his girlfriend Crystal) were on the eleventh floor preparing for the day's recovery work.

Sooner than any of us could say "Wha--?" our team was moving all the office's computers as far away from the windows as possible, and running thick, industrial-strength extension cables from the generator (which was situated on the ninth floor of the build's parking garage) to our office, the colocation room, and the build room which was situated within the datacenter. We lent some of this generator-borne electricity to others who had decided to weather the storm in their places of employment, so they could run their TVs and watch the news, microwave ovens for the preparation of food, and water coolers. Many of these people, who on a normal day wouldn't have been allowed to even glimpse inside the datacenter or colo room, were invited in by Sig to help out with the storm-damaged walls, which were leaking rainwater. Lawyers, accountants, secretaries, security guards, and janitors were all running to and fro to help staunch the flow of water that was quickly making its way into the datacenter with mops, a Shop-Vac, and a cache of promotional t-shirts we still had lying around from when the company was trying to get a since-failed project off the ground. The problem was that the north-facing wall of the datacenter was drywall, but behind the drywall, the windows that covered the rest of the building were still in place so as to maintain visual conformity from the ground. Most of these windows were the first to break, and hurricane force winds and increasing puddles of yellowish water were rapidly spreading from beneath the drywall and towards the 100-some racks and their countless, mission-critical servers in the datacenter and colo. Where the walls met the floor were quickly covered by the aforementioned t-shirts and the rest was rapidly mopped up (thanks to the maintenance guys, Jim, and myself) and the larger puddles were fed to the Shop-Vac. As the wind shifted direction, the water gradually receded. "I survived Hurricane Katrina and all I got was the smell of a wet mop on my hands," I remarked to Jim.

Looking down at the street was like looking down at news footage of various war-torn areas in any given part of the world where things explode and people die; roofing shingles, sheet metal twisted into unrecognizable forms, roof-mounted air conditioning units and their protective covers, thousands and thousands of bricks, boards, and doors, and most obviously, millions of glass shards, some just slivers, others the size of cars, all in varying degrees of destruction. It was one of the worst things I'd seen in my life. Looking out the window later that night and seeing only black looking back at me was indescribably chilling; normally, the downtown area is brightly lit all night long, but now, it was a bottomless pit. That old saying, "you do not look into the abyss, for the abyss looks into you" seemed utterly true then.

We found you hiding we found you lying
Choking on the dirt and sand
Your former glories and all the stories
Dragged and washed with eager hands

While the rainwater was being beaten back, the windows in the build room started cracking and so we pushed/pulled as many storage cabinets and file boxes we could find in there and strapped to them to the window frames with CAT5 and coaxial cable by the spool to desks, shelves, and whatever else we could find, hoping to minimize the damage that could've conceivably been caused had the inner window panes broken. While the putty holding the two separate panes of glass together started failing, all we could do was wait. We spent a large portion of the three lockdown days in the general area just generally milling about on the internet, taking pictures of the carnage beneath the room's now half-thick windows, and engaging in interviews with CNN, the BBC, and a few local news stations, as we were the only place at ground zero with not only power but also with net access. The interviews were conducted wholly via ICQ and AIM, since cell phone reception was either non-existent or so spotty as to be unusable, as most of the cell towers in the city had blown over at the first hint of hurricane-force winds.

We were able to force open the electric (unpowered) access gate to the building's garage, to allow for more barrels of diesel fuel to be brought to the generator. The National Guard and some U.S. Army detachments also used the garage as a staging area for the general downtown district. Martial law was declared the day after the hurricane departed for parts north.

By Tuesday morning, I was starting to get sick from SSRI withdrawal. Since I'm a vegan, Crystal (the team's designated cook, with what little food was available to us) did a good job by offering me bread, peanut butter sandwiches, and whatever else we could find to fit a vegan's diet. All the rest of the team were omnivores, so they managed to maintain a greater degree of health than I, despite subsisting on little more than store-brand lunch meat, Kraft singles, and store-brand sandwich bread, all warmed on a generator-powered George Foreman grill. In any situation where I might be forced to break my vegan diet, I will hold out against it for as long as possible. Another day in the office and I'd have probably done it.

Tuesday morning I decided to go check on my car, which, as you may recall, I had parked on the street on Sunday evening. I was shocked to find that it hadn't had the slightest ding on it—indeed, it was filthy from all the shit falling all around it (mostly roofing insulation and tar paper), but it seemed as though most of the debris had fallen around, but not on my car. I think the biggest piece I had to remove was a 3"x3" piece of roofing insulation that was stuck to the windshield. Given the relatively pristine condition the car was in, I went for a drive, just to take a look at other areas of the city. I drove uptown, to the Garden District. I was able to get to around Napoleon Avenue and St. Charles Avenue before the fallen trees became completely impassible; there were so many fallen trees in the uptown area that you couldn't drive on one street for more than a block or two before having to find a different street to avoid a tree. There were no open stores or gas stations. Every store I passed which might've sold the tiniest morsel of food was in the process of being looted. The Walgreens on St. Charles was probably the biggest target that I was able to see (though the Wal*Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street was reportedly hit very hard by the looters). At the Walgreens, a crowd was gathered outside and making orders to those who would venture in to retrieve what they needed, mostly food and prescription drugs, as the looters had managed, after blowing out the main entrance with shotguns, to destroy the steel gates that protected the pharmacy by repeated firing of a wide range of large-caliber weapons, which I could hear as I drove past. Police cars drove past as if it was just another day, although I can sympathize with with their non-violent law non-enforcement in the face of gangs of hungry and frightened thugs armed with shotguns.

On Tuesday afternoon, when I was really starting to feel sick from SSRI withdrawal, I heard on the news (we were fortunate enough to have a TV in our little build room enclave) that there was a way out of the city, across the Crescent City Connection bridge to the West Bank, the outlying suburbs of New Orleans, across the Mississippi River. I took advantage of this, having had the unknowing foresight to have filled my car's gas tank the Saturday before the shit hit the fan. The way to the bridge, and the bridge itself was clear, although I had to drive the wrong way down a few one-way streets due to various debris, and so off I went. There wasn't much traffic heading west, and I didn't encounter a town that had power until I reached Bayou Vista, some ninety miles west of New Orleans. Given that I'd been wearing the same jeans, socks, shirt and undies since the previous Sunday, I was beyond relieved when I found a Wal*Mart in Bayou Vista, where I picked up some comfortable driving clothes and promptly changed into them in my car's back seat.

After a stop at a neighboring Burger King for a BK Veggie Burger™ (sans mayo and cheese), I was off again. I got to Lafayette before finding a northbound route, in this case I-10 east, which could've taken me back to the city I'd just left, instead deposited me onto I-12 and then I-55, which I followed north to Jackson, where I picked up I-20 east to Meridian. There, I spent one hour in line for gas ($2.59/gallon; cheap by the standards of only five days later), and searched in vain for a hotel room for the night, but the whole city was occupied by other refugees. I pressed on. Brandon had power, but no hotel rooms. Ditto for Tuscaloosa. Finally I was able to find a room at a Days Inn on the outskirts of Birmingham at about 1:30am Wednesday; the last room they had available. Showering for the first time in three days was nothing short of heavenly, as was sleeping on an actual bed as opposed to non-shag office carpet with no pillows or blankets.

I checked out of the Days Inn around 11:00am the following morning and arrived at my parents' house in Spring Hill, Tennessee, around 1:00pm, where I ended up staying for the next three months before returning home.

Then, I didn't know if my home still existed, or if the storm razed it to the ground, flooded it, or sent it off to the merry old land of Oz. I left my two beloved cats, Pepper and Jena, in the apartment because I stupidly thought I'd be returning the following day. I feared the worst for their safety. Based on my stupid, misguided foresight, I've deemed myself unworthy to ever adopt another cat.

I didn't know that I would return to New Orleans if it did survive; the fear of natural disasters such as this has made me want to distance myself as far as possible from the chance that a similar storm might happen again in a place I'm living. All of my belongings are insured, but some of them carry with them extremely high sentimental value that simply cannot be replaced. Once I found out what became of my home, I made a decision to return. It's still home, after all.

But oh your city lies in dust, my friend

I didn't know what to do. I was very scared and very apprehensive.


  • Sig's Katrina pictures site, mostly taken from our tenth floor refuge:
    http://sigmund.biz/kat/

  • Mike's LiveJournal, which documents all he sees as it happens:
    http://www.livejournal.com/users/interdictor/

  • Also, the indefatigable company I work for that just keeps on chugging in the face of cataclysm:
    http://www.directnic.com/

Epilogue

October 2, 2005: I just returned from New Orleans; there was no damage to my apartment at all, and both cats were still alive! They're here in Tennessee with me now, seemingly well, and getting used to having people around again. They've both turned into voracious eaters. I'm taking them to the vet this week sometime to check for sepsis (they'd been drinking from the toilet) and other afflictions, but from all appearances, they're hale and hearty now. Joy!

I ended up staying at my parents' place until the first week of December. I drove back to New Orleans on December 3, 2005, and I've been here since. And though there is still a lot of cleaning up to be done, I'm not going anywhere.

 

Lyrical interludes by Siouxsie and the Banshees.©1986

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