‘We need to go home’

Novelist Joseph Boyden on picking up the pieces in New Orleans, his adopted city

Bill And Nancy live in the Mid-City district of New Orleans, right around the corner from a mutual friend’s skinny little bar named Pal’s. Bill and Nancy, my wife Amanda and I, all of us teach at the University of New Orleans. The past three summers we’ve also taught together in a study-abroad program in Madrid, and we are close friends.

When Katrina hit New Orleans, people like us were scattered to the winds. Fortunately, people like us had places to go, often with access to the Internet and other creature comforts. We started our own virtual moccasin telegraph, sending out reports of who was safe and who was missing, who had escaped and who had decided to ride it out. Bill and Nancy, for whatever reason, hung in — just two of the 125,000(out of a population of 500,000)who remained in the city. On Tuesday, they were unaccounted for. By Friday, a bizarre three days of growing calamity later, another friend sent word that they’d escaped in a harrowing, Hollywood-scripted way. Their house began to flood. They stole a neighbour’s abandoned boat. They made their way to another friend’s abandoned car, stole that, too, and drove out of the city.

About the same time, three students from Duke University, as reported by CNN, were able to drive into the city and quickly find and rescue a number of citizens. This astounded a lot people. All of the talk about how dangerous it was for the National Guard to enter, never mind the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross. And yet these three average-looking white kids stocked up their car with food and water, counterfeited press passes and drove right by the army vehicles sitting idle on the wrong side of the Crescent City Connection, a huge bridge that joins the West Bank to New Orleans.

Let me fill you in on the geography of accessing New Orleans. The I-10 comes in from two opposing sides of the city, one of which is currently impassable. That’s the bridge we’ve seen on the news, the one crossing Lake Pontchartrain and now missing large swaths. But then there is also US 90, the highway that takes you through Cajun country, and eventually deposits you onto the Crescent City Connection, and then straight into New Orleans. That highway and bridge are completely intact. Once over this bridge you are literally at the Convention Center, where thousands of stranded and forgotten citizens have languished. How FEMA did not even know of them until the Thursday after the storm is worse than astounding. And once over the bridge and into New Orleans you are maybe a two-minute straight-shot drive to the Superdome. Why, then, could rescue workers and the military not aid those people more quickly? I think this is what angers and confuses so many New Orleanians.

But, as everyone keeps on saying, now is not the moment to play the blame game. There will be plenty of time for that later. Let’s focus on rescuing survivors, and taking care of evacuees blown every which way.

Last year, a number of my more enterprising graduate students created a weblog, full of hilarious pictures and stories, of news and information regarding our tight-knit writer’s community. Nobody then knew that this was to become our lifeline with one another. The stories aren’t so funny these past two weeks. Matt, a graduate of our writing program, stayed in New Orleans to offer his services at a hospital. His blog account is harrowing(page 30). A.C. and Bill escaped to the mountains of North Carolina. Chrys is stuck in Monroe, La., and describes the place as having the most tanning salons per capita in the U.S. Chrys is of Hawaiian and Native American ancestry and says he feels like a raisin in a bowl of milk. Jessica and her husband have informed everyone that they are taking advantage of getting back into Jefferson Parish, La., where their house is, to see if anything is left worth salvaging.

So this is how our world ends — not with a bang, but a whimper. A few of the braver ones have reported that they’ll return to New Orleans as soon as they’re allowed, and begin rebuilding their lives. None of us has approached the subject of what is going to happen to all the areas sunken in putrid water, of how the clearly changing physical and social geography is going to alter the city forever. Already, economists are saying the city will suffer enormously if even a fraction of New Orleanians don’t return. So why would anyone consider going back to a place where the reasons for not returning so outweigh the positives?

Because this is New Orleans we’re talking about, the city that is so much a cultural birthplace of America. This is the ground zero for all that is good and all that is horrendous in the U.S. It’s become a cliché, but there is no other place on Earth like New Orleans. On a good night, the danger that bubbles just below the surface is palpable. But even on a bad night, you can still feel the lust for life pulsing out of open bar doors, music halls and shuttered homes Uptown, in the Marigny, in the lower Ninth Ward. A friend recently said in an email that New Orleans isn’t just his home, it’s a state of mind.

Last week, Amanda and I left Houston(she had fled there alone, and I’d joined her there after returning from an international trip)and made our way to Memphis. If there is any place similar to New Orleans, it is this other city on the Mississippi. A younger, quieter cousin. We continue to feel idle, useless, especially here just up the river. And so we’ve hatched a plan. If boys from Duke who’d never even been to New Orleans can do it, so can we. We need to see what has become of our home for ourselves. Nothing else will stave off the overwhelming weight of idleness. On Monday, we are going to load up a car in Baton Rouge with bottled water, instant meals, pet food and hip waders, and then — armed with press passes — go back home, to try to do something for the city that has given us so much. Pieces need to be picked up.

A half-million stories of heartbreak; 125,000 stories of desperation. And that’s just in New Orleans.

Joseph Boyden, 38-year-old author of the acclaimed novel Three Day Road, was born in Toronto and has lived in New Orleans for 11 years.

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