October 4, 2005

But the Bay St. Louis we all knew is no longer there.

READ MORE of this article by Gregory Favre

By Keith Woods
Dean of Faculty

How does a city die?

In the dead air of our cell phones, my sister and I let the question fade into ellipses, finding refuge from the pain in silence. I have to go. I’m on my way home to New Orleans, or as close as I will get. The road trip from Tampa used to cover 700 miles in just about nine hours. Now, Hurricane Katrina has rearranged the roads and shifted the direction of lives. So it will take nearly a day.

It’s not an easy thing to run toward heartbreak. My father waits in a hospital in Opelousas, La., a sickly man nearly finished off by the trauma of a protracted evacuation. My sister-in-law’s parents are missing. I don’t know the fates of countless friends. We expect that nearly every home my family owns or occupies is done with.

Nephews and cousins and friends and in-laws were last seen stubbornly holding out here, trapped in a hotel there, lost amid the dazed masses in the Superdome and convention center. A journalist friend has not been heard from since he went on assignment to wait for the center of Katrina to smash through Gulfport, Miss.

I don’t mean to be ungrateful for the people who I know are alive, nor am I unmindful of the souls -– How many? Hundreds? Thousands? –- who have died in the wind and waters. It’s just hard to see past the dense urgency of now and the shattered vision of tomorrow.

“How does a city die?” I ask my sister. But the question reaches into my chest and pulls angrily at my heart, demanding an answer from the journalist that I am. From the black man. From the brother, uncle, cousin, friend and father.

From a son of New Orleans.

*   *   *

“Hi. You leaving?”

These stories all begin the same way. The phone rings and an out-of-town sibling quickly gets to the point. Since the nine of us have variously occupied or abandoned Missouri, Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, parts of Louisiana and so much of Florida, somebody always watches over New Orleans. Somebody always calls.

How does a city die?Jeanne had Daddy. She and my stepmother, Vertner, would meet with Patrick’s family and they would caravan to Lisa’s house in Opelousas. My brother Eric had a rental and would take Liz and their two boys to Jackson, Miss., to stay with strangers. I reached Patrick’s wife, Cheryl, on the Saturday before Katrina. The phone lines were already jammed. The family evacuation was all but done.

Disaster could come now.

It took seven hours for the family caravan to reach the pecan grove Lisa and her husband own in Opelousas, a trip that doesn’t take half as much time when you’re not emptying out a city. Pneumonia was brewing in my father’s chest and he would be rushed to the hospital on Monday as Katrina exhaled her devastating breath at the Gulf Coast.

No one told my father then that the trip killed his dog. Sassy had grown old and feeble like her master, and Vertner found their blonde cocker spaniel taking her last gasps under a camellia tree. So they buried her near the horse pasture. As flood waters drowned my father’s neighborhood 150 miles away, the doctors at Opelousas General asked what to do in the event his heart stopped.

“He can’t die now,” Vertner said to me. “Where would we bury him?”

*   *   *

“Do you hear that music?”

Brother gave me a puzzled look, inasmuch as nobody was singing and we hadn’t stopped talking long enough to turn on the radio. The oldest son, he’s named after my father –- Verdun Paul Woods Jr. -– but we’ve never called him anything but Brother. We’d hooked up in Tallahassee -– I drove from Tampa, he drove from Jacksonville –- to make the circuitous trip north to go south.

The music I heard in my head had an epic sound, with lots of trumpets, trombones, maybe violins and French horns. You hear it in every disaster movie, building to crescendo as stunned victims take in the full measure of a catastrophe.

I started hearing the music in Dothan, Ala., which is not exactly on the way from here to there. As Katrina raged north, she’d wedged an oil platform under a key bridge in Mobile, Ala., wiped out the Mississippi coast from Pascagoula to Pearlington and shattered the span of Interstate 10 that crosses Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans. So the only way to get where we were going was to angle up through Georgia and Alabama, west to Jackson and a rendezvous with my brother Eric, then head down toward what was left of home.

I heard the music faintly when I saw the Louisiana  “Sportsman’s Paradise” license plate in a gas station on Highway 84 and listened to a woman with a distinct New Orleans drawl tell her child why the ATM wouldn’t work for them (“Sugah, I think the water got into our bank”). By the time we reached the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Montgomery Highway to buy food and clothes for family, the music was blaring so loudly my head hurt.

The food shelves in this massive store were under siege nearly a week after the storm had passed. Maybe the people were panicked by pending shortages. Maybe, like the family in the gas station, they were running from my hometown. Maybe, like us, they were stocking up to help someone who had been hit.

We stopped in Jackson to give Eric and Liz food, water, money, encouragement. Just before we left, Liz asked if, when we found a place with electricity, we would post the names of her parents and her sister on the Internet. She hadn’t heard from them in seven days.

“It doesn’t look good,” I told Brother.

The music came back.

*   *   *

“Are you a looter or a finder?”

I read the subject line and knew what was in the e-mail. A wave of messages had rolled in on Katrina’s heels linking to the same two pictures: A black man pulling a garbage bag full of loot, a white woman towing bread and other food behind her. The black man, one photo caption says, is a looter. The white woman, the other says, found the food she’s pulling through the water. Television and print journalists had gotten swept up in the apocalyptic story of a city sinking into anarchy, and now they’d turned on themselves. Wasn’t this evidence, many journalists wanted to know, of the media’s bigotry?

The argument raged in my inbox. I deleted each one as it arrived.

It was Tuesday. Cheryl’s 94-year-old grandmother (they called her Mama Dear) was trapped in her house, awash in rising, putrid water. Fats Domino was missing. People were dying in attics, on rooftops, on the roadsides and in the Superdome. What the hell did I care whether somebody messed up a caption?

That week, Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote with glib, liberal superiority that the fear of being called racists cowed white journalists so much that they ignored the most obvious element of the story: that the people who stayed and were now, by the thousands, in harm’s way, were overwhelmingly black. Thus, many journalists, their unexamined discomfort with the story’s images outed by the widely circulated column, leapt upon the opportunity to add the race of New Orleans’ victims to their stories.

I wondered if some even felt relieved to have permission finally to state the obvious.

I wish they’d waited for the water to go down low enough for the white people of St. Bernard Parish  to start their sorrowful westward sojourn. I wish they’d waited until the Gulf of Mexico had retreated enough to reveal the devastation in Lower Plaquemines Parish and release the bodies of the white people drowned in Buras, Port Sulphur and Boothville and Venice — people who, just like the black people in New Orleans, stayed because they had no options or because they believed this storm, too, would turn, or because they were unwise or because they believed in God but not in Armageddon.

I wish they could have seen the white faces of poverty in the Superdome or along the Mississippi Gulf Coast as clearly as they could see the blackness of poor folks in the 9th Ward.I wish they’d waited until they heard the white president of Washington Parish crying on the radio as he pleaded for help that hadn’t come. I wish they’d seen the white president of Jefferson Parish crying on television because he thought help came too late. I wish they could have seen the white faces of poverty in the Superdome or along the Mississippi Gulf Coast as clearly as they could see the blackness of poor folks in the 9th Ward or the blackness of the mayor who leads New Orleans. Then, maybe, they’d understand how little of this was about race and how much was about a more insidious, long-standing, unconscionable malfeasance of government officials who must have felt secret glee as our eyes diverted from their criminal incompetence.

I know rage and racial suspicion. Every time I’ve cried since the end of August, those tears have been laced with the poisonous fear that we live in such a country where you can die of heat or hunger, drowning or dehydration –- on national television -– and no one will come to help if your skin is not white.

But I know more. I saw the white people waiting, hurting, dying. I knew they were there even when I didn’t see them. I knew that America had also failed them.

As Brother and I neared Baton Rouge, a white woman called in to a radio station from Bogalusa, a devastated victim of Katrina in Washington Parish, just north of the city. They’re crying racism in New Orleans, she told the host.

“Now the black people are going to get all the help and we won’t get nothing,” she said. “So I think we should set up a charity for white people.”

*   *   *

“Did you hear about Mama Dear?”

Lisa is on the other end of the phone, and I can’t listen any more. My father looks like death. My city is empty. It has been too much.

Our trip to Louisiana was mostly symbolic and bordered on an inconvenience for Lisa and her husband, who had other things to do than rescue her older brothers each time we got lost in the back roads of Opelousas. Everything we did to help fell short of finished. Everything we bought or donated felt pitifully inadequate. A week after the storm struck we celebrated Lisa’s birthday, kissed my father goodbye, then headed home.

In the darkness, the roadside landscape looked like it had been stomped by giants.We drove back through Mississippi on the once-impassable Interstate 59. Katrina had come this way. In the darkness, the roadside landscape looked like it had been stomped by giants. A mile south of Poplarville, the trees on either side of the Interstate, many teetering dangerously above us, had been snapped in two, their pine essence hemorrhaging into the night air. On the other side of the highway, dozens of military jeeps, utility trucks and ambulances spoke solemnly of what they expected to find as they convoyed south.

For miles, we were the only ones on I-59. There were no road signs, no electricity, nothing to point the way home but headlights and memory. The music was back now –- soft, saxophone sad, a dirge befitting the birthplace of jazz.

Slowly though, as the dead bobbed to the surface in New Orleans, the living had emerged elsewhere. My uncles, aunts and cousins were with family in Houston, San Antonio and Baton Rouge. My friend Mario was in Franklin, La. One of my sister-in-law’s brothers was in Arkansas, another in North Carolina. Two cousins had gone to Atlanta. Liz’s parents and sister were alive in Baton Rouge. The missing reporter surfaced in Gulfport. Fats Domino was pulled from his yellow and black shotgun double in the sodden lower 9th Ward.

Hope had survived.

Now, Lisa is on the phone, reminding me that this story is not over.

Mama Dear is dead.

She died on Sept. 14, Patrick’s birthday. Her 7th Ward house had survived Katrina, but when the levees broke, the water rushed in, and it was nearly two days later that firefighters in a boat plucked her from there. They took her to the nearby Interstate 10 ramp, where she lay on an air mattress for 12 sweltering hours. An ambulance came on the third day and took her to the tarmac of Louis Armstrong airport, where doctors and nurses practiced medicine in the open air, their old and sick patients stacked on luggage carts. She was there for another 12 hours before an airplane came to take her to Houston.

What age and disease couldn’t accomplish in 94 years, foolhardiness, dehydration and incompetence did in 16 days.

They buried her in a crypt in Houston just as cars began to flood Texas roads in panicked retreat from Hurricane Rita. She won’t stay there, though. They’ll bring her back home sometime after the madness recedes and the soldiers go away and, I suppose, when there are enough people around to lay her casket at her husband’s side in New Orleans.

How does a city die?

How can it die when cars stream stubbornly back? Some surely come only to carry bleary-eyed family home to pick through the muck of their lives on the way to somewhere else. Some come only to lead a funeral cortege to grieve at the cemetery. But others will stay to rebuild, to pick up the sticks and bricks and trees and, in a few weeks, when it’s All Souls Day, to tidy the graves they build above the ground in New Orleans so that no amount of water can totally erase the past upon which my hometown has always built its future.

Keith Woods is Dean of Faculty at The Poynter Institute. He was born in New Orleans and spent 16 years with The Times-Picayune, working jobs ranging from sportswriter to City Editor to columnist.

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The Dean of Faculty, Keith teaches reporting on race relations, editing, persuasive writing, ethics and diversity. He's a former reporter, city editor, editorial writer and…
Keith Woods

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