Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published Bill Lavender’s account of escaping New Orleans. Considering just how many of Bill’s friends & fans of his poetry read this blog, it makes sense to reprint it here.

'We're Getting Out of Here'

Bill Lavender runs the Low Residency Creative Writing Program at the University of New Orleans. His companion, Nancy Dixon, teaches in the university's English department. Over a cellphone, Mr. Lavender described their journey out of the city.

When we heard about the storm, we decided not to evacuate, because we really didn't think our house was in grave danger. We live in Mid-City, which is a part of New Orleans that's relatively high but not as high as the French Quarter. It's an old house. It's been through plenty of hurricanes.

I guess the storm was at full force at midmorning on Monday. It never was really that bad -- I actually put on my motorcycle helmet and walked around outside at the height of it. We lost power, of course. We still had water, we still had gas.

By about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the storm was over. There was a little bit of water in the street, but nothing I couldn't have driven through. Our reaction at that point was, Well, this wasn't really that bad.

If that had been all the storm was, I wouldn't have regretted staying.

At some point in there, the water did start to rise. It was rising in the full sunshine, with no rain, just coming up in the streets.

Our neighbor across the street, who had evacuated, had a boat under her house -- a 14-foot light aluminum skiff with oarlocks and oars. As kind of a lark, I went and pulled it out from under her house and put it in the street.

That night, Monday night, we went out on the front porch. There was absolutely no light, and there was no noise, and the stars were fantastically clear.

We got up the next morning, and the water was higher. We were trying to listen to the radio, trying to figure out what was going on. We were hearing that the flooding on the east side of New Orleans was really bad. We were starting to hear helicopters flying around.

There was a rumor that the levee was broken somewhere, but that they were going to be fixing it, and that as soon as they got the levee fixed, they were going to be able to pump the water out. I was thinking maybe the end of the week, at the most.

One of my neighbors came to my door and said there was a guy around the corner with a baby who needed to go to the hospital. The guy was scared to death of water.

So we got in the boat, and we were rowing down the street, trying to pick the best route to Mercy Hospital. There was water all the way -- right up to the front door.

Some guy in scrubs got down in the water and helped me dock the boat there on the steps. He was a paramedic who worked for the city. He said they had no power in the hospital, and he had a generator down at his office. He wanted to know if I could row him down there so he could get this generator.

And I asked him, "Doesn't the hospital have backup power?" He said, "Yeah, they have a generator, but it's in the basement."

It was ludicrous, this notion of going to get a 5,000-watt generator to power a hospital. But he said, "There are people dying in here, and it's all we can do."

So we went to his paramedic station, a little two-story metal building. Two of his colleagues were there.

This guy I'm with told them, "I've come to get the generator." And they told him no. He said, "Look, there are people dying in Mercy."

"Well things are tough all over, and before this generator comes out of here, I've got to get me and my dogs out."

At that point, I kind of exploded. I said, "You're not even using the generator. The generator has nothing to do with your dogs." It kind of shamed them. We finally did get the generator.

We had our last good meal that night. We were having wine on the front porch, all the neighbors were out on their porches, and I got out my guitar and sang "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."

That night it was really hot and really still. There were helicopters messing around all night. I had this idea they were either evacuating Mercy Hospital or bringing them a generator. At one point they were so close that I could feel the wind, so I took to praying for them to come over.

It wasn't until Wednesday that we started to get more information. There was a press conference at 12. They said they thought the levee repairs would be done by about Friday. Then they said they should have the water out of the city within about 30 days. I said, "We're getting out of here. We can't live like this for 30 days."

We packed up very hastily -- all our drinking water and a good bit of food. I left my hard drive with 30 years of miscellaneous writings on it, plus Nancy's hard drive with all her scholarship on it. I just tried to hide them in the attic. I didn't know what else to do.

We had to put our cat in a carrying cage, and we put our dogs on the boat. We went and got our neighbor, my friend Charlie Franklin. We told him what we'd heard and we told him it's time to go. He thought about it for about two minutes, and then said OK.

We were nervous. We knew there were no police. We'd been warned that there were roving bands of armed looters. We knew that the boat was becoming a valuable commodity. The dogs were nervous also. They would not let anyone approach closer than about 10 feet from the boat. Charlie had a gun.

When we turned one corner, there was a kiddie pool floating in the middle of Canal Street, and I could see a head sticking up over the side of it. There was another guy pushing it and another guy wandering around in the chest-deep water looking kind of dreamy. They were junkies that had looted the Rite Aid. They were using this kiddie pool to get out of the water to shoot up.

A little further, there was a dead man in the water. Someone had hung his shirt up on a street sign. I couldn't really see his face, but the shirt was sticking up like a tent. We heard later they were tying corpses to street signs and poles.

Across the street was a building called the City Hall Annex. It has a big front porch that was just above water level, and it was full of people, maybe 150. On one end, there were women and kids holding up signs saying, "Help us please." At the other end of the porch there was this mad party going on. They were breaking windows and throwing whiskey bottles around and kind of whooping and yelling.

We were starting to get very careful about our route because we were getting close to the Superdome, and we didn't want to get caught there. Our plan was to go to the Macy's parking lot, which is just adjacent to the dome, where we had parked our car. We were just praying that we might be able to get to the car and drive out.

There were no cops. In this whole ride, we never saw a cop.

When we got to the Macy's parking lot, we saw that the entrance was four feet deep. So we couldn't get our car. We followed the water to the corner of Girod and Carondolet, and that's where the water ended. We had to abandon the boat.

So we started walking uptown, to go to my ex-wife's house, which we knew was dry, and they had a generator and probably food and water. For all I knew, they were still there, because I hadn't talked to them since Monday morning when the phones went out.

We saw this two-story house with the facade completely removed. It was just like a dollhouse. I could see the furniture and the bookshelves, everything neat, nothing in disarray, and these two black labs up on the second floor looking down at us.

After a while, a guy caught up with us. He told us he had walked all the way from the lower Ninth Ward. I'm guessing that must be at least five miles. He told us that down in the Ninth Ward he was literally wading through bodies on the way out. He didn't know where any of his family was. He had a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old kid, and he suspected that they were both dead. He was coming uptown because he had a brother who was a butler in a Garden District mansion.

He told us that in the end there will be tens of thousands dead.

We got to my ex's house. We were just praying that we were going to see her pickup outside the house. But there was nothing, and our hearts just sank. We'd been on the road now for about four to five hours. We were exhausted.

Then I remembered that our friends lived just a few blocks away, and they had left their car. Not only that, but I knew right where the key was. We got to Alex and Kat's house, and the car was intact, and the key was in the mailbox. But we couldn't make the key work in the door. I tried it and Charlie tried it, and finally I said, "Charlie, move," and I threw a brick through the window.

We crammed all of us in the car. We drove to Tchoupitoulas Street and then straight across the bridge to the West Bank, the only way out.

The next day, we were going to leave Charlie in Baton Rouge to take the bus to Alexandria, but we found out that there were 200,000 people downtown trying to get out. So we took him all the way to Alexandria. We started to have the emotional breakdown. It was strange how, going through the whole thing, I just sort of never stopped. None of us did.

But when we dropped Charlie off, all three of us broke down and started crying and pretty much didn't stop for about three days.
Section: Notes From Academe
Volume 52, Issue 4, Page A56