Three years ago today, two days before Hurricane Katrina hurtled through the Gulf as a Category 5 and changed everything, it was a Saturday and I was lying out in my backyard under a clear blue sky. Nearby was my 1990 Honda Accord, which got destroyed when slate tiles off the roof sliced through both metal and windshield. In the next chair over was my former roommate, one of many friends who have moved on and away since the storm.
This is how it goes, on each anniversary. I can’t help counting down the days and the hours in my mind. It’s like how people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot, Challenger exploded, or 9-11 happened.
I remember what I was doing on the second-to-last day.
I write this post both in memoriam, and in explanation, hopefully, of why it hurt so much every time a new misinformation-riddled article from an out-of-town writer came out last season saying the Hornets weren’t going to make it in New Orleans. Because every time they said those guys who bore the name of the city across the front of their teal jerseys weren’t going to make it, what I heard was, “New Orleans isn’t going to make it.” Maybe it was wrong to take it personally. But, on the other hand, it was the taking it personally that led me to make this blog.
On the second-to-last day we rented videos. And we bought a case of beer. Basic hurricane prep, right? (The part that makes this different from any other weekend of your life is that you still have the videos, in their clear plastic boxes in the entertainment center forever, because the store has never re-opened.)
Maybe you thought it was cheesy when ESPN and the like decided to dramatically announce (after “forgetting” the team existed for the first three quarters of the season) that the Hornets were playing for an entire city. It was, and it was also drastically oversimplifying what happened here. But it’s not their fault. It’s hard for people who weren’t here to understand this whole thing. And I’m not trying to be condescending, to make out like we’re some exclusive club you can’t be a part of (you wouldn’t want to be a part of it). But it’s like that trite old saying about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones.
Only you don’t know your house is made of glass until it comes shattering down. If the National Guard was parked on the road keeping you out of your house for four weeks, and there was no power in your neighborhood for months anyway, and you’d already run down your savings, and you needed to put down a deposit on an apartment in a new, northern city, would you take the $4,500 check from FEMA? Would you stare numbly at the highway flowing past under the car, wondering what happened to your life? Would you feel guilty because you were upset about losing your clothes and books and car, when other people lost so much more?
We’re up to 7 AM on the Last Day. The city officials hold a press conference on TV. I watch it in bed. Katrina has strengthened to a Category 5. The levees cannot hold a Category 5. Evacuation is mandatory. All citizens with vehicles are to leave immediately. Get out. Just get out.
The members of the New Orleans Hornets are expected to be ambassadors for this city, and indeed the current team is full of high-character guys who’ve gotten involved in service this season, but they don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, except for David West, the only player left from the pre-Katrina roster, they’re in the strange and unfortunate position of dealing with the aftermath of something they were never here for. Only the minority owner is local. Chris Paul, drafted in 2005, hadn’t even arrived in New Orleans for training camp when abruptly his new life in the city was over before it started. Is it the team’s fault? No. Can you understand the slight undercurrent of resentment from some New Orleanians early last season? Yes.
12:52 PM on Sunday, August 28, 2005. I take a break from packing (and what would you bring if you had two hours to choose?) and sit down at my computer to quickly blog. This is what I write, at 12:52 PM on the Last Day:
This morning we woke up to sun shining through the slats of the blinds. The palms and magnolias on my street are swaying with the strengthening breeze. The heat bakes the slate roof tiles on the house next door. I look out over roofs that have been there for a hundred years. The cars are parked on the neutral ground. The streets are ominously empty.
We meant to ride it out, but…
Mandatory evacuation of Orleans Parish. It’s a Category 5 storm with winds of 175 miles per hour. The officials are saying there’s no longer a question that the levees will be overcome by the water. It’s so strange, really. It just seems like a pretty Sunday. Last year they said Ivan was going to be The One, and it wasn’t. They said the city would full up like a giant fish bowl. They said this was the price of living in the past.
I don’t know. I know I don’t want to leave, because, no matter how I want to deny it, there is a very real possibility that it won’t be here when I get back. I suppose at a moment like this what you feel is admiration and wonder: at the persistence of the people who settled here, who braved malaria and ungodly heat, who watched the river swallow their homes and then improbably built again in a swamp, at the women of two hundred years ago who did it all in floor length skirts. At least that’s what I think about. Goodbye to my green streetcars. Goodbye to the sweet still air that smells like flowers. Goodbye to the grand old ladies of St. Charles Avenue, with their iron lace and graceful tall shuttered windows and delicate porches, to whom my heart belongs. If this is your end, I am glad I won’t see it. Stubborn old city. It’s funny, somehow I see it making it… It’s very quiet outside now. I’ve taken the pictures down from the walls. We’re evacuating north to Nashville.
Goodbye, city. Good luck.
This is what I write, and then I fold up my laptop and put it in my bag.
But, three years later, and this is the important thing, this is more than a story of a hurricane. It’s a story about the resilience and grim humor of people who learned they had to rely on themselves. It’s a story about stereotypes: about people who heard they were supposed to be an inhuman bunch of looters, who were told they were stupid for living in a place that was their home (sometimes, ludicrously, by people who themselves lived above a fault line or on a tornado-prone plain), who were accused of stealing FEMA money from taxpayers. They said, “Good riddance.”
8:00 PM and you’re in the car, forehead leaning on the glass, rain collecting in ominous puddles along the side of the highway, car headlights stacked to the horizon, gas running low.
Then this winter they said, “New Orleans doesn’t care about the Hornets. New Orleans doesn’t want the Hornets.” And you know what I say to that? I say, “Fuck you. Don’t tell me what I want.”
Don’t tell me what my city needs and does not need. You weren’t there. You came to party, but you didn’t want the baggage. You weren’t there with the doors hanging open and banging in the wind, up and down an eerily empty street littered with debris. You weren’t there when the traffic lights didn’t work for a year. You weren’t there when the Saints scored a touchdown 90 seconds into the first home game after Katrina, and a whole city leapt up in unison, and it meant something.
You didn’t see all those little kids dressed in Chris Paul jerseys.
You weren’t there the night I heard an indescribable roar, and I looked up from the court, and realized New Orleans Arena was full, from bottom to top.
4:00 AM, and you’re sleeping on the ground outside at a rest stop in Alabama. Only you’re not sleeping. You’re staring up at the still-clear sky. You’ve outdriven the storm. You’re almost to Birmingham. The traffic has thinned. The rest stop is scattered with quiet people with Louisiana plates. The air is humid. It’s August 29, 2005.
What do we want? We want to forget the Saints were ever in San Antonio; we want to forget the Hornets were in Oklahoma City. We want the Hornets to make it, because our pride can’t take it if they don’t. Because every sellout this spring was a cry of victory for the city. We are not who you think we are, you columnists with poor research skills in bland Midwestern cities. We want you to stop telling us what our fate is going to be. We want you to write the damn follow-up article, the one about the 10,000 season tickets already sold for 2008-09.
We want you to understand why it says “New Orleans,” not “Hornets,” on the front of those jerseys.