Another Storm of the Century: A Voice from Tuscaloosa
Back in August of 2005, I sat in my second-floor Baton Rouge apartment and watched Hurricane Katrina swirling over the Gulf of Mexico. The monster storm angled ever closer to the Louisiana coastline, headed, it seemed, for New Orleans, my favorite city in the world. Like every other person who gave a damn, I could only watch in helpless horror as the coasts of not one but three states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—crumbled before Katrina’s fury. In my part of Baton Rouge, we lost power for thirteen hours or so. Some of our refrigerated foods spoiled. An hour away from New Orleans, I listened to the rifle cracks of trees splitting in half around our complex and could only imagine what it must be like at the sites of landfall. I ventured outside to check on my car, performing the mime “walking against the wind” routine, only with actual wind; I had to lean forward nearly forty-five degrees and plod along as if I were knee-deep in swamp mud. When I ascertained that my car had survived the floral carnage in evidence all around me, I turned back and found myself high-stepping along like a cartoon sprinter, the hurricane-force winds now at my back. For a moment, I felt as if I might lift off the ground and sail away.
Later, when the levees broke and flooded the city, I screamed in frustration. As the remaining inhabitants of New Orleans stood on rooftops and small concrete islands just above the putrid waters, as those stuck at the Superdome and Convention Center stewed in their own filth and died while waiting on an absent government to help them, Kalene and I donated to shelters and prayed for the city. We waited fearfully for word from our friends who had been stuck in town or stayed out of a sense of duty. We watched the news religiously and saw Hollywood actors and pro athletes arrive to help, long before the President showed up. We heard tales of lower parish officials welcoming members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who somehow arrived before FEMA. A week after most people had finally gotten out of the city, we saw a good friend who had stayed behind at his university in order to help students with nowhere to go. He had easily lost thirty pounds and told tales of returning fire while unknown assailants shot at him.
Six years later, New Orleans still needs help. And as I sit in Northport, just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa proper where I work and spend half of my time, I have to wonder what the state of Alabama will look like in 2017.
I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between the tornadoes that ripped apart the south last week and Hurricane Katrina. I suppose some of these comparisons are apt. Both storm systems devastated enormous areas of the south. Having lived through both, and having been lucky or blessed enough to experience only a near-miss each time, I would have to say, if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, that Katrina seemed worse to me; it crushed the coasts of three states, put an American metropolitan center under water, and destroyed millions of people’s faith in the American system itself. The death toll was higher; the victims waited much longer for aid.
But such comparisons are, I believe, ultimately pointless. The fact is that both storms unleashed almost unimaginable power. They both trashed homes and took lives indiscriminately. Argue that Katrina is worse until you’re blue in the face, but I defy you to do so in front of those who lost loved ones to the tornadoes. Tell that to those standing outside the giant piles of kindling that were, just a week ago, solid homes that people had spent lifetimes creating. Suffering is suffering; death is death.
What I am more interested in talking about today are the lessons that Katrina taught us and how I’ve seen those lessons in action over the last several days.
It all began so similarly. Again, I sat in my second-floor apartment, watching as an apocalyptic storm system bore down on my home region. With Kalene and our cat Cookie McSnowshoe already ensconced in the illusory safety of a bathtub, our electronics and important files piled around them, I watched the tornado sweep into Tuscaloosa. I was sitting in the center of my couch as the local news showed footage from their tower cam. They panned the camera until the tornado churned in the center of our television screen, the debris cloud clearly visible even in the distance. The wedge tornado split my screen so efficiently that, sitting before its bifurcated symmetry, I knew what an animal must feel like when the hunter looks through his or her scope and centers the target, crosshairs nestled just behind the forward shoulder. It seemed that the storm was coming straight for me.
“Sweet Jesus,” I said to myself as rain drove against our balcony doors and forks of lightning split the sky outside. On screen, the city lay in the path of the tornado like a model Tokyo waiting for the man in the Godzilla suit to step on it.
Soon enough our cable and internet failed. I joined Kalene in the bathroom and listened as my father, calling from a South Carolina hotel room on a business trip, narrated the tornado’s path. He stayed on the line, calling back whenever we lost the signal, until he heard that the storm had moved past Tuscaloosa and had headed on to Birmingham. At that point, Kalene and I emerged from the bathroom and into a different world.
No, our apartment had not been damaged. We never even lost power. But as more and more reports came in about the devastation, we knew that things were different. We often think of our time in Louisiana as occurring in two periods—before Katrina and after. Now we would mark our lives in Alabama the same way. Our cable and internet came back on early Friday morning—probably the only good thing that Comcast has done for us in our five years here—and we saw the first images of what we had only heard about. Whole neighborhoods flattened. Businesses wiped away. A gutted Hobby Lobby stood beside a pile of rubble that had once been Big Lots. The Alberta neighborhood had been reduced to matchsticks. Forests of mighty trees had been crushed flat in odd patterns, like crop circles in corn.
We would soon learn that some of our friends were homeless. Others learned that their lives had hung by the thinnest of threads. And some, like us, somehow escaped the carnage entirely. The tornado took a right turn and angled away from us. If it had kept on its course, it might have hit our apartment directly. And then they probably would have found me in Georgia, Kalene in Kentucky. We heard tales of young people dying—the three students who clung to each other in a bathtub until the storm was over, two of them surviving, the other found a quarter mile away. The four people who hunkered down in a closet until, the tornado having passed, one of them stood up and realized that he was the only one left, the others whisked away like so much straw in the breeze.
Why were some killed and others spared? Why were some homes leveled and others not even touched?
I don’t pretend to have those answers. What I do know is this: what I’ve seen so far inspires me.
In the finale of Treme, season 1, Steve Earle sings, “This city won’t wash away. This city will never drown.” In spite of all the natural, political, economic, and sociological obstacles in their way, New Orleans and her people have endured. I am now seeing the same resolve all around me in Tuscaloosa.
Trucks loaded down with bottled water, young workers and college students stacked in like cordwood as the vehicles roll into the teeth of the disaster. The sound of chainsaws and human voices singing their songs of labor as trees are removed from rooftops and living rooms. Low murmurs of comfort in contrapuntal relief with the wails for the dead. The hopeful calls of searchers as they dig through the heaps of refuse that were once houses, everyone hoping against hope to find more survivors. An outpouring of sympathy and money and labor and love.
These are the best lessons from Katrina—that in this life, the only thing we can really count on is each other. Working together is always better than working alone. Pain shared is pain overcome. Helping one’s neighbors, and even one’s enemies, is the right thing to do, no matter the cost. I have seen a President appear two days after the storm, not a week, and rather than making a long speech in an empty square that he attempted to fill with false promises, he took action. I have seen federal monies allocated quickly. I have seen insurance companies acting responsibly—at least for now—rather than exploiting every possible loophole that might allow them to piss on the injured and the destitute. I have heard of FEMA sightings, which in Louisiana were as rare footprints of Bigfoot. I have seen a people rise from the debris to take the hands of other human beings who stepped outside their own spheres of plenty long enough to help.
And so, thanks to the human spirit and their people’s own indomitable wills, I believe that my current home, like New Orleans (city of my heart), will endure. It may take time and effort and money, but it will happen. And I hope that in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa and numerous smaller towns ripped apart by wind and water—including Vilonia, Arkansas, where my two youngest children live—we will all continue to do our part. Let us take each other’s hands long after the television cameras are gone. Let us support each other even when there’s no profit in it. Let us look past our ideologies and into each other’s eyes. If we can hold each other’s gaze, we’re probably doing all right.
To do so is not conservative or liberal, socialist or communist, democratic or republican. It’s the decent, human thing to do.
And if we can do it in the aftermath of a storm, why can’t we do it when the skies are clear? Why can’t we apply these same principles and acts to the problems of disease, poverty, racism, homophobia, sexism, education, and homelessness? Why do we refuse to come together, to take care of each other, until nature tears us apart?
Some would say that to do so would be to be un-American. If that’s true, we should be ashamed of ourselves. To me, the true American spirit can be witnessed in the former graduate student who’s coming back to Tuscaloosa on his own dime, bearing water and food and a chainsaw, because he cares. We can see it in the lives of those who take in the newly-homeless, who donate their time and money and the strengths of their backs to assure that this storm does not define Tuscaloosa’s history.
We can see it in each other, if only we bother to look.
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