The Gustav Evacuation, Part 4: Our Return

All bad things must come to an end.

Most of us drive back the way we came, caught up with thick but moving traffic on the interstates.  But at the junctions of I-10 and I-12 we choke up and lose momentum, feeling farther from arrival the closer we get.  Those of us who have sought out alternate routes on local highways drive through the small towns and communities of the south, searching for reassuring signposts, hesitating at confusing forks, admiring red-brick churches and the fields where they bury people below the ground.  We are moving slow but sure that, in the long run, we’ll have outrun those fools on the interstate.  Highway 90, a rural ribbon that wraps the Gulf coast, is almost deserted.  The storm ran roughshod up the beach and onto the road, passed through the resorts and casinos, giving everything a good saltwater scrubbing.  Finger puddles spread across the highway from the shoulder to the oversaturated median.  We hydroplane and navigate around yachts and fishing boats parked on the dotted white line, then leave Mississippi behind and make the last lonesome leg through the pine marsh, snapping branches under our tires, marveling that all this impenetrable nature lies just miles from the city.

We arrive at all hours, and leftover wind runs through town like a child, slapping at everything that dangles: store signs, stoplights, peeled back shutters and the plates bearing street names strung up on wires.  In the daytime the wreckage is fully visible down every side street.  We drive slow and turn our heads from side to side—what didn’t make it, what did?  The damage is not horrible, and that’s a relief, but there are a few old buildings that survived the last dozen storms that have finally given up and caved in, their interior walls visible from the street, torn like wet paper.  For those of us arriving at night, in the dark of a city with patchy power grids, the damage has to be inferred from the debris lying face-down in our headlights.  We get the feeling of what a ghost city this could be, with vegetation creeping into our homes in the wet, hot nights, an entire metropolis no longer lit by electricity or the spirit of its inhabitants.  It’s as if our absence of only a week has accelerated the weathering of the wood and the sinking of the asphalt.  The city needs us to take care of it, to watch over it.  To occupy the houses, fight back against the flora, and beat music against the walls.  Without our custody even the wrought iron would flake away into small, airborne trash.

That’s why we return, even after this strong reminder of the potential disaster, this quick threat of a repeat offense.  New Orleans is older than the state that surrounds it, older than the nation that pities it.  It will always exist in some form as long as the boastful few who inherit it can’t comprehend living anywhere else and feel its importance mingled with their marrow.

We pull off the avenues into our neighborhoods.  The stray cats watch our cars approach and dart off through gates and underneath hedges.  They found some place to hide from the scourging winds and dominant rain, reminding us that this city will always be an easy home for the unclaimed and the scavengers.

Our neighbors are already back and are out on the porch, watching to see who comes next.  We lean across the railing and share stories, compare notes.  Throughout the city the competition is on: who suffered the most.

Took us 15 hours to get to Atlanta.  Took us six damn hours just to Baton Rouge, and the storm hit there harder.  There were eight of us in the one room, man.  I thought auntie was going to faint from overstimulation.  Two flat tires in two different states.  I had a four day migraine.  The dog ran off, just straight into the woods.  My brother-in-law is a right son of a bitch and if I ever have to see him again, it’ll be too soon.

No one wants to give up even a little token of their trauma or let it go undocumented.  As if there will be some kind of recompense for our spent emotion along with the gas and unearned wages.

Well, come on over and have some dinner then.  We already been to the store.

Our homes are hot and smelly.  They have soaked up the outer atmosphere like chambered sponges.  In our absence we have forgotten about the mess we made searching through the rooms for the precious items we would take.  Everything needs to be put back now, restacked at right angles.  We need to restock the fridge.  A few of us are lucky and have electricity.  The rest of us hurry to get everything done before sundown, then head out onto the porch.  The streets are filled with people like the old days, back before air conditioning, squatting on the stoop or rocking in swings, enjoying the ten degree difference that night can bring.

There’s a curfew on, but every place that can be open is.  If the beer has spoiled, we drink liquor.  Restaurants run on limited menus but are packed with eager adherents, all the foodies who feared their favorite places would be washed away.  People crowd the doorways and lean against the exteriors, joking and complaining, making predictions, wondering where the others are.  The National Guardsmen roar down the streets in humvees, arms and guns poking out.  Their big tires hit the potholes hard, and the soldiers go bouncing around the cabin and readjust their helmets.  They point out the windows and whistle at our girlfriends or cousins.  They’re dazzled by their first time in the big city, even if it is half dark, thrilled by this unique domestic occupation.

Within the next few days almost everyone will be back, and it will all seem like an overblown fad, a temporary panic that robbed us of a week.  We’re a little embarrassed, really.  The near miss has realigned some of us with the old mindset that we’re all better off just staying put and hunkering down.  Screw this exodus shit.  Katrina was the exception, not the New Rule.  Back to work, back to school, back to overanalyzing the Saints.  The last to arrive are the short-term wards of the state, the poor and the elderly bussed back in from up north.  We return to the projects, back to Central City, back to The East, back to our own self-contained way of life.  We feel as riled as anyone else, packed up and shipped for no good reason, then hassled twice as hard on the way back in.  We return to our corners, to our tiny kitchens, to our knowledgeable silence.  Some of us resume our interrupted revenge, and before the storm has even dissipated over the Midwest we tally a few more gangland dead.

New Orleans reconvenes.  The old arguments relight.  The graft machine whirs back to life.  We pick up the dry cleaning.  The horse carriages resume their rattle through the Quarter.  The newspaper starts to get thicker, not with news but with ads for renovation specials, clean up crews, mold busters, and insurance lawyers.  We rejoin the rest of the nation in recession worries and presidential election mania.  The river opens back up to traffic.  The ships start floating by, carrying goods up the channels or racing back to sea empty.  Flights resume.  A few tourists follow through on their itineraries, feeling lucky to see us and our city right after a hurricane has passed by, as if they are catching us in our natural state.  Maybe they are.

The work crews disentangle all the branches from the power lines and clear away the scattered splinters.  They reattach signs and sweep up glass.  They return our city to just the way it was before Gustav: half-vacant and weather-beaten.  They refurbish our semi-accomplished recovery then box up the tools and pack it in for the day.  It’s all up to the bosses, now.

Tomorrow we’ll resume the years-long wait for all our power to be restored.  Tomorrow we’ll tread a little more water.

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