Ten years ago, I covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for the New York Post. I spent more than a week in the city, interviewing survivors, witnessing damage, seeing dead bodies, sometimes paddling in abandoned boats to get to flooded areas. Stories for the Post, obviously, are written in a particular style. When I returned home, shaken by what I had seen, I wrote about my experience in my own style. These words are 10 years old now. But they are still vividly present. This is what it was like to be there.
A human body, left dead in the sun, makes more of itself. Heat expands air in the organs, distending the stomach and enlarging the limbs. Swollen skin tightens, dulling to a waxy sheen. Fingernails protrude in bullet-shaped pieces of amber. The face, once lithe with animation, puffs, staring. It is larger—the entire body is larger—but the growth is denaturing, a sign of loss, not gain. Whatever personhood once animated this piece of creation has drained away, leaving only a silhouette of dark liquid staining the pavement.
I learned all of this in the city of New Orleans, during the days I spent there covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a newspaper reporter. I saw my first dead body a few hours after arriving, then saw them continuously, several per day. When I could—when they weren’t floating or wedged in a high window or trapped in a flooded school kitchen—I knelt beside those bodies, examining their faces, searching for remnants of the life that had lit them. Their expressions, mostly, were neutral, as if death had come as a passerby, unremarkable. Their limbs, though, were not relaxed, but stiff, even braced. Next to some were hand-lettered signs: “THIS PERSON DIED HERE.” One was draped in a blanket. Another wore a gold watch and chains. All were alone, and several remained, unclaimed, two days, three days, a week after I found them. They became for me quintessential signs of a city extinguished. Forgotten, as if the person they once embodied had never existed—never been born, never died.
I was at my desk in the Brooklyn courthouse when the phone rang. It was my editor. “Can you be on a plane to New Orleans this afternoon?”
“Um,” I said. It was Tuesday, two days after the hurricane. I was a reporter for the New York Post, covering courts. The Post had sent a reporter and photographer to New Orleans, but they had detoured to Biloxi, thinking, as the rest of the nation did at first, that damage was greatest there. They were now stranded somewhere in the Mississippi delta. National Guard trucks had sloshed water over the hood of their SUV, shorting it out. Would I be willing to replace them?
I thought for a moment of my father. He had graduated from Louisiana State University and worked one of his first newspaper jobs at the Times Picayune. He had spoken often and nostalgically of New Orleans. I had never been there. But the city’s saturated American character, its gauzy, sultry habits, were etched as an imperishable fact in my memory.
“Yes, sure,” I said. “Let me call my wife.”
Summer days dawn gently in the Mississippi delta. Sun filters through oaks and mosquitoes trace lazy circles in the shade. The air, thickening with heat and moisture, muffles noise and stills the will. It is a gracious, decadent season. The hurricane upended it. Wind stripped the trees or felled them altogether. Leaves carpeted the streets, piling against porches, settling into ragged holes left by uprooted trunks. The sun burned with autumnal sharpness. I was reminded of the high Sierra, where glacial basins and whitebark pines brood in isolation. The whole city felt isolated — streets emptied of people, clocks stopped, buildings moldering in trackless time. The river rolled past on its way somewhere else. Sunsets dwarfed the horizon. At night, in total darkness, stars carpeted the sky.
I met my photographer, Matthew McDermott, an ebullient, moody mountain of a man, at the Baton Rouge airport. He had just returned from a photo assignment in Africa. “Ready to rock and roll?” he asked me, slapping a pack of cigarettes against his palm.
We rented a red Ford Explorer and stopped at a Rite Aid, two Wal-Marts and an auto supply store, where we bought water, Gatorade, energy bars, canned spaghetti, nuts and (my contribution, greeted with utter bewilderment) soy milk. I took from a shelf Wal-Mart’s last pair of rubber wading boots. We bought bug repellent. At the auto parts store, Matt plucked from one aisle a flashing orange emergency light that affixed magnetically to the car roof. “This,” he said with satisfaction, “will get us in.” To his disappointment, Wal-Mart was out of guns.
Matt knew a photographer in New Orleans named Tom, whose house, in the Algiers neighborhood directly across the river from downtown, was intact. We would head there, Matt said. We drove onto a traffic-clogged highway and soon were gliding through the Louisiana countryside. We passed vine-choked forests, oil refineries and sugarcane fields bristling in late afternoon heat. Warm, wet wind blew in the windows. It began to rain, and I saw a dead dog at the side of the road, its legs in the air, then a girl skipping down the highway. A sign on an empty bar by a riverbank read, “Katrina aftermath party!” On the radio, a doctor called from the roof of University Hospital in New Orleans, where 200 patients were trapped. “There’s sewage flowing through the hospital,” he said.
At a Shop Rite gas station at the intersection of state highways 1 and 182, owners had locked themselves inside and were requiring customers to hand twenty dollar bills through a crack in the door. A line of cars snaked away from the pumps. Seven children huddled in the bed of a sagging pickup. While we waited in line, a man with Jheri-curled hair and a Budweiser in each hand ambled over and asked where we were going. “If you have a gun, use it,” he said when we told him.
We turned on our emergency light and, as Matt had predicted, were waved through a police checkpoint at an interstate. Beyond, the highway was empty, darkening in approaching night. Occasional caravans of police cars passed—but always away from the city. Soon they stopped and we were alone, our headlights swirling with a snowfall of insects, the woods resounding with croakings and buzzings.
The outskirts of New Orleans appeared, empty convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants. The highway lifted onto stilts and we took the exit for Algiers. At the bottom of the off-ramp, branches, leaves and pools of water showed in the headlights. Somewhere to the left, fire burned. “Stop for no one,” Matt said. It took us some time to find Tom’s house—streets were blocked by trees or downed power lines. Finally we pulled up to a two-story craftsman bungalow 500 yards from the river. The windows were boarded. A few doors down, a house had been reduced to splinters.
We unloaded the Explorer and felt our way into Tom’s house, up a flight of stairs, past a small shrine of Buddhist statuary, through a kitchen that smelled of cigarette smoke and rotting food, and into a stifling, pitch-black living room. Tom had spent his youth in Tibet and was now writing a biography of the Dalai Lama. Other photographers camping at his house were asleep. I found a sofa and lay down. A short while later, the house shook with a series of rolling booms. Everyone fumbled outside in their underwear and clambered atop a nearby levy. A chemical warehouse was exploding downriver, sending jets of flame into the sky. We stood and watched in silence as more explosions rocked the empty city. Then we walked back to the house and waited for morning.
New Orleans follows the curve of the Mississippi, as if leaning or surrendering into it. Streets twist with the banks, curling the city into a shell that spirals ever more tightly about itself. For most visitors, the center of that spiral is the blend of food, jazz, partying and well-groomed Southern living that expresses the city’s persona. During my two weeks in New Orleans I did not encounter that persona. Nearly empty of people, devoid of lifestyle, drowned, the city presented itself as pure geography, differentiated only by random, derelict landmarks. I remember one remote harbor canal for the metal warehouse where a hook, blown by wind, banged ceaselessly against a metal wall. Highways mattered only to the extent that they were above or below water—they rose and fell like sea creatures. A purportedly dangerous neighborhood to the north of downtown distinguished itself by the stagnant pool we had to cross to reach it. The pool was deep and had already stalled a few police cars. Beyond ran a wide, four-lane boulevard bisected by a grassy median and lined with charred storefronts, motels converted into camps and smashed cars. I named what I later learned was the Garden District the nursery. Its graceful, largely untouched homes (built on higher ground) were nevertheless surrounded by detritus blown from trees—like the nursery of a spoiled child, I thought, who has thrown a fit and wrecked his toys.
I awoke in darkness. The heat, trapped at night behind the sealed windows and doors of Tom’s house, had abated somewhat. I picked my way outside over cans, bottles, clothes and expended candles. Matt was already up, and we loaded the Explorer with food, water, Gatorade, cameras, rubber boots, his cigarettes and my backpack. Algiers links to downtown New Orleans via the I-90 bridge over the Mississippi, a solid yet graceful cantilevered steel arch. We drove onto the bridge past a checkpoint of lounging state troopers (the flashing orange light again) and stopped at the apex, where we had our first look at the ruined city. It appeared blue—sky reflecting in water. Then we saw fires—the chemical factory, still burning, and another fire downtown. A vast dome of smoke drifted north, partly obscuring military helicopters taking off and landing from the Superdome parking lot. Below, a crowd swarmed in and out of the Convention Center amid a confetti of garbage and debris.
We drove on and passed freeway encampments on hot pavement, women cradling babies, a man barbecuing in a trash can, wheelchairs. “We’re glad y’all are here!” someone shouted. We followed a National Guard caravan to the Convention Center, where the air smelled of urine, beer and sweat. A man was crushing glass bottles in a parking lot with his bare foot. A woman wearing two left shoes said to me, “I lost my last dollar yesterday.” A 72-year-old man named Roynell Joshua, seated by the curb, pillow at his back, legs thin as baseball bats propped on a banquet chair, flagged me down. He wore a collared shirt and cracked leather shoes. He had hung a faded fedora on his chair arm. “I’m old,” he said. Someone reached behind to help him up. “No! No! No!” he shouted. As he settled back, his pants slipped, showing green underwear. The odor of tuna, inexplicably, drifted past.
Soldiers, for reasons they wouldn’t explain, began clearing the street. The crowd slowly moved, but Roynell remained, patiently, almost laboriously, telling his story. He and his wife, Joyce, had lived in New Orleans East, where waters rose fast. They had climbed out a window to a boat, which took them to the I-10 freeway. There trucks arrived to ferry them downtown. Boarding, he and Joyce had somehow become separated. “I’m kind of worried about her,” he said. The guards tried to lift Roynell. He protested, then reluctantly, shakily rose, his pants slipping again. Grabbing them, he lost his balance and sat down. “This is the kind of help we get?” someone cried. More guards gathered and cradled Roynell in their arms. He wobbled between them, jerking a hand from their shoulders to his pants. Finally they sat him in a broken office chair with three wheels and scooted him across the street. I followed, but the crowd surged and I lost him.
A city is like a body. Left dead in the sun, it becomes unrecognizable. Whatever personhood it expressed vanishes. This is hard to understand because cities, like bodies, like our own bodies, seem permanent. At least in the moments we experience them, their identities, the life that animates and differentiates them, appears fixed, inhered as if by right, outside time. I grew up in Los Angeles, and to me, Los Angeles feels a certain way, expresses a certain personality different from other cities. Now I live in New York and I sense that personality in neighborhoods, on streets—this street feels alive, that street is rich, that neighborhood, the one with the cobblestones nearly swallowed in asphalt, reeks of old New York and Clipper ships and scampering boys. My natural assumption is that these identities, these feelings exuded by cities and their parts, pre-exist me, are there to be encountered. They were there before I arrived, they will be there when I leave. They are.
In New Orleans I discovered this is not true. The personhood of cities, I learned, is made up moment by moment. It is the sum of the actions and intentions, the desires and aspirations, of the people who inhabit a place. Take the people away, cover the streets with a thin layer of water, and the personhood vanishes. In Los Angeles, when I was in high school, I sometimes drove home from concerts late at night. The freeways were nearly empty, and, speeding along, I often felt a temptation to weave madly across the lanes. In New Orleans, the freeways were always empty, and so we drove wherever we chose, weaving across lanes, jumping medians, speeding up off-ramps or waiting with fascination while a helicopter landed, unloaded drinking water and rose into the air like a heavy-winged bird. At night, when rescue workers had left, we were sometimes the only thing moving on an entire stretch of highway. Wet wind flapped through the windows and we passed remnants of others’ joyriding expeditions—wrecked cars crumpled against retaining walls, their engines ripped out, their tires slashed, their sides streaked with graffiti. I felt resentment when New Orleans began filling up again, about a week after we arrived, with reporters and more rescue volunteers and visiting politicians. The freeways, my freeways, grew crowded. Lane directions were enforced. Helicopters stopped landing. A new personhood, like a skein of ice melting and then reforming over a pond, took shape in New Orleans. To last, or not last, as long as the newcomers willed.
Three days after arriving in New Orleans, we drove to New Orleans East, the neighborhood reached by crossing the deep pool of water. There, just past a bridge over a shipping canal, on a street called Chef Menteur Highway, we came to a motel with a sign reading, “The Friendly Inn.” Across a driveway leading to the motel’s flooded courtyard someone had erected a barricade of shopping carts, bed frames and a piece of plywood spray-painted with the words, “WARNING: GAURD.” We stopped the Explorer and approached the barricade, where a few men, one bare-chested, eyed us suspiciously. Behind them, water lapped in and out of lower story rooms, faces peered from upstairs windows and dogs paced and moaned on a balcony. We introduced ourselves as journalists and the men relaxed.
“We’re just surviving, that’s it,” said the bare-chested man, whose name was Danny Phillips. “We’ve got a little community going on here. We’re taking care of each other.” Phillips said he had ridden out the storm on the bottom floor of the motel, where he had been paying weekly rent to live. “It came up to my chest and I got out and went upstairs.” Other residents had joined him up there, and the tiny community began venturing out to a nearby Winn-Dixie market to loot food and supplies, which they kept in rooms stacked with soup, chili, water and candy.
A large man in a red baseball cap and sweaty blue t-shirt—his name was Robert Rickman, but he told me to call him Tiny—said he and the others had been wary of us because earlier that morning police had engaged in a gun battle with six drug dealers who had fled into the courtyard. One of the dealers was shot and killed at the entrance. The others fled. Tiny showed me a red stain on the driveway surrounded by shell casings and a few tubes of lip balm—fallen from the dealer’s pockets, he said. He pointed across the street to a large Econo-Lodge and explained that it had become a haven for drug dealers and users, who had amassed a large stockpile of narcotics. Once, he said, a man apparently hallucinating ran across the street, jumped in the Friendly Inn’s courtyard lake and began swimming.
A man named John Hickey ambled over. Tall and courtly, Hickey had outfitted himself in surgical scrubs and a pair of plastic bags wrapped around his legs. He told me he didn’t know where his family was—his daughter, his granddaughter and his sister, who had lived on the ground floor of a flooded housing project. “We’re 50 percent black, 50 percent white, and no racial tensions here,” he said. “We all get along.”
A man named Darrell Perkins chimed in, “The name of the motel held true. We just decided to get together because we knew we had to survive. … Most of us are from the old school. Survival instincts kicked in. Everyone has to eat.” He pointed to a second story room. “Miss Anne and her husband. She’s 61 and we’re making it comfortable for her. I was going to get ice and I cut my leg and split it open. John got his Neosporin.”
“It’s been that kind of thing,” said Hickey. He paused, then said, “Can you put my name out there so my brother and sister and grandchild know I’m okay? Let them know John’s still at the Friendly Inn and let them know he’s okay?”
“Can you do that for Darrell Perkins, too?” Perkins asked. I said I would and, before Matt and I left, the men insisted we stand for a group photo to prove they had been interviewed by journalists from New York. Then they suggested we go to the Winn-Dixie down the street, where a few other people had started a small community.
We got back in the Explorer and drove to the market, a wide, low-slung building gleaming in the hot, bright sun. A pair of sliding glass entry doors was open and we ventured into a vast, cool, fluorescent-lit interior. An emergency generator had apparently turned on and was still powering lights and air conditioning. The smell of rotting meat hung in the air. Helium balloons bobbed against the ceiling. “Get well soon!” one read. In the produce section someone had split open a box of Apple Jacks cereal and ground it to powder on the tile. Elsewhere the floor was slick with tomatoes. Most of the fruit was gone, except for a large table stacked with furry plums. A deli bin tottered with drooping wedges of gourmet cheese and boxes of Monet Elegant Table Crackers. Bread, potato chips, crackers, grits, instant coffee, jam, pickles, canned soup and vegetables, diapers, cooking utensils, baby formula, toilet paper and magazines were mostly gone. Wine, hard liquor, candy, cereal, syrup, frozen food and a row of milk separated into white solids and clear liquid remained. Near the front, a rack was filled with copies of the Times Picayune. “Katrina Takes Aim,” read the headline.
To our disappointment, the store appeared uninhabited. But as we walked back toward the door, we heard a noise. Someone had emerged from an office in the rear of the store and was approaching. She drew nearer and we recognized Connie Conway, a woman we had met the day before at a gas station. There, she had been perched atop a shopping cart piled with luggage (clothes, a suitcase full of soda and two paddles), waiting for her brother, who was rooting around in the station’s cash register. She seemed not the least surprised to see us in the market and commenced talking as if our conversation had been interrupted by only a few moments.
“I want to get out” of the city, she said. But her brother wanted to stay, and so they were camped on mattresses in the manager’s office. The proximity to food was nice, she said, but the air stank, forcing her outside “every now and then” for fresh air. The bathrooms, too, had turned “nasty”—she, her brother and his wife were using a bucket with bleach in it. “I’m not getting much sleep,” she said. “We watch DVDs” on a television in the office. “We watched three movies last night.” Suddenly, she urged us to leave. Her brother was in a bad mood and might become violent if he found us.
Five months after Katrina, I returned to New Orleans to report a magazine story. While there, I drove to the Gentilly neighborhood northeast of downtown. In September, Gentilly had been under several feet of water, inaccessible to all but rescue workers with boats. Getting aboard one of those boats was tricky—government officials generally shooed reporters away. Desperate to penetrate the silence of a deeply flooded neighborhood, Matt and I had come across an abandoned fishing boat washed up against a freeway on-ramp. The boat had been stripped of its motor, but a wooden paddle lay in a pool of fetid water in the hull. Matt sat on a swiveling fishing chair near the prow while I pushed off and paddled into a serene, rippling lake—the intersection where the freeway on-ramp and off-ramp connected with surrounding streets. Poking through the water at about eye level was a large Chevron gas station sign. Below, gas pumps wavered in the murky depths.
It was in Gentilly that we talked to a man named Warren Reckser, a genial hotel bellhop who sat with four rottweilers on a raised porch washed by boat wakes. “I’m going to stay here till I clean up,” he said, dismissing National Guard orders to leave with a wave of his hand. “I have to take the rugs outside my house. Do you have any double-A batteries? I need some for my TV.” We also welcomed aboard a man wearing a bus driver uniform whose power boat engine had stalled, leaving him drifting tantalizingly close to the freeway. “These people are crazy out here!” he had shouted as he clambered in. “They’ll hunt you!”
Mostly, though, I remember Gentilly for what we found at the top of that freeway on-ramp. Lying against a concrete retaining wall, near where the on-ramp and the freeway formed a V at their meeting, was the body of an elderly man, uncovered, his stomach distended to the circumference of a beach ball. He wore a gold medallion around his neck and a gold watch and two gold chains on his left wrist. Someone had wedged a flowered pillow under his head. A metal folding chair lay on its side next to him. A short distance away was a patch of graffiti: “8/30/05 RIP S.B.P.”
By the time I returned to New Orleans in February, I had spent many nights thinking about S.B.P., worrying about his soul, wondering what his last moments were like. His body had not been moved the day I left New Orleans, which means he had waited more than a week for cremation or burial. Days and days in that hot, relentless sun. Where did he end up, I wondered? What happened to the watch and chains? The pillow? Did the presence of the pillow indicate that someone had sat with him while he died? Or had he wedged it under his own head before sinking into a frightened, painful sleep?
Driving back from the Friendly Inn, we passed a man and a boy standing beside an abandoned mail truck on the highway. The truck was wrecked, and on its side someone had spray painted, “THUG LIFE. BLACK POWER. FUCK DA CITY WHITE BITCHES.” The man, short and grizzled, wore a tennis shoe on one foot and a plastic sandal on the other. He told me his name was Hurey Esteen, 62 years old. The boy, Uri, was his 13-year-old great-grand-nephew. While we talked, Uri poked through looted merchandise strewn inside the truck.
“Me and him been holding on by our fingertips,” Esteen said. The two had stayed behind in New Orleans “to take care of the animals.” They had narrowly escaped drowning when Hurey used a rope to pull both of them from rising flood waters. “Me and him are the last two. The women are gone. The sissified men are gone. We should have left, too.” He narrowed his eyes at Uri. “For a child, he ain’t shit. I love him. I don’t like him too much.”
Uri, a scrawny boy wearing shorts and high top sneakers with no socks, climbed out of the truck holding something in his hand. It was a lighter. He flipped it open and a music-box tune played as the flame appeared. “I don’t miss going to school,” he said. “I get to eat chips and junk food.”
He climbed back into the truck. Esteen, rooting around for another shoe, grunted, “This ain’t nothing. He’s on the retarded side. God will take care of him. But I know him. He just aggravates me so much. He wants to go to the Special Olympics and run track. He could run all day and never get tired. He’s had a lot of fun but he doesn’t know the danger we were in. … We sleep on the street. We found some pillows floating, something soft so you can lie on your side. I’ve been trying to keep him comfortable. I slept two nights on a chair to keep an eye on him. This lets me know how the homeless feel.”
Esteen, who had failed to locate a shoe, heaved himself up from the guard rail and leaned into the truck. “C’mon Uri, let’s get off the highway.” The boy leaped down and the two walked away, toward an off-ramp. Uri flicked the lighter as they went.
The next day my editor called. Somehow, John Hickey’s sister had seen my story about the Friendly Inn on the internet and called the Post newsroom. Get back there, my editor said. Let’s put these two in touch. Matt and I drove through the deep puddle, over the shipping canal bridge and stopped at the motel driveway. The courtyard was empty. The barricade had been knocked down and a toy boat floated in the water. Upstairs, a pit bull paced the balcony and barked. Matt climbed to the second story and shouted that the rooms were empty, still stocked with food. He opened a can of Chef-Boy-R-Dee ravioli and fed the pit bull. A small dog emerged from somewhere and dove into the courtyard lake. He swam across and shook himself dry on a parking median. I noticed a Winnie the Pooh doll lying on its side in the entry port. Matt came back downstairs and we watched the little dog sniff at a urine stain. Across the street, wind clanged a cable against a pole. We called out one last time. No one answered.
“Let’s go,” Matt said. We got in the Explorer, started the engine and drove back the way we came.