How to survive a Katastrophe
Editor's note: Yes, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is over. But reader submissions continue to come in. In the spirit of remembrance, we offer a few lingering recollections.
Guns at the ready. Young pimple-faced coast guards stood watch as we drank. Every hour was a reunion. The city was filling back up.
People requested pictures that I couldn't take. It was too horrific. The air was still. There was a silence that suffocated. Insects. Birds. Pets. Plants. Neighbors. Dead or gone.
Months passed and things headed toward normal. Before normal we saw our homeland covered in red faces, sweating and working under blue tarp roofs, with streets white with Sheetrock dust. America left us. How'd it happen? Where was normal?
I was 25 years old.
The city I loved faded in the rear view mirror as I headed out into the night. The traffic was less terrible than expected, but that had much to do with great strategic planning due to years of practice in the fine art of fleeing home every time Mother Nature glared angrily at us.
If you've evacuated once, you've evacuated a million times. Except for this time. This time was different on a level I didn't know I could learn.
West we went. Heading to a sleepy town called Lake Charles, where my mom and dad would park their van to seek safety with my grandmother and my dad's brother. My girlfriend and I would pause for a few hours rest and a killer roast with garlic mashed potatoes and a forgettable vegetable side dish. I do recall the traditional Wop Salad.
My final destination was always New Orleans, but I knew we'd have a few days to dick off.
The house is packed. I forgot that everyone I knew was on the road at the same time. It just makes sense that the one friend I have in Texas is housing many of my friends already. It's a wild reunion. More drinks than I'd seen outside of a bar since high-school house parties.
My then girlfriend (who wouldn't appreciate me calling her that due to her having a fiancé in Germany at the time) and I left Houston the night the storm hit. At that point it sounded like we were out of the woods. The storm hit hard, but the bulk of us survived. We turned the TV off and headed to Austin.
A few months prior to Katrina, I had flown to Austin to help open a flagship store. The turnover hadn't been all that bad. That being said, I walked in and was uproariously greeted by many familiar faces.
"What are YOU doing here ... ohh ... umm ... you need a job?" I was asked by one of the pizza guys I'd had the pleasure of training months prior.
I responded with a laugh, "No no, just came to visit. Headed back home tomorrow. It wasn't as bad as they said it would be ... typical, they always pla--"
Interrupting me, he ushered me toward the break room. "We got a big screen TV that you'll want to see."
My jaw dropped as a copter view showed the mall that was minutes away from my home. Everything was under water. 9/11 and this image will forever be ingrained as a confusing part of my life.
To be clear, I am always doubtful of what the media force feeds the masses. But these images ... these I trusted to be my very pungent reality.
As tears filled my girlfriend's eyes, voices moved around us like distant traffic noise when you live in a thin-walled house near a busy street.
People moved around us in a sped-up time lapse fashion while disbelief subsided and questions grew.
"What. Now?" was all I could say for the first hour. Even my girlfriend's voice seemed muted and as far away as that drowning neighborhood I had just driven through 40 hours ago.
My gaze and attention shifted to the ignorance of a poor unsuspecting Texan. His words are tattooed in my brain. But I've worked long and hard to repeat them without violent rage brewing (I just put on Nine Inch Nails while writing this to calm me down while I tell you about this shit).
He spoke loudly in an announcer-style voice. The faces in the room sank as they saw me look away from the screen for the first time. I didn't look at him. I looked at my girlfriend, who squeezed my hand with a tightening pulse that matched his every syllable. I'd seen her cry before. And in the past it had been my fault and I couldn't remedy it. This time. This time was different. And I still didn't know how to fix it.
Instinct is a beautiful response when you're lacking the basic needs of survival. Food. Shelter. Clothing (past what you have on) is gone. All I owned was my rage. A single tear fell as I heard him basically beg for me to punch him. He didn't know I was from New Orleans, but he found out quicker than he could have imagined.
Let's back it up a bit.
Asshole: "They got what they deserved. They live below sea level. They're all drunks and fags. They're animals and drowning them will make the South a better-"
He never did finish that thought out loud. I'm a short, round man. I'd worked with knives for more than 10 years of my life at that point. My forearms and calf muscles are the only ones with definition.
My violent response wasn't my proudest moment. But it got me super laid, as soon as we found a hotel room a few minutes later.
What I said to him can't be typed. It wouldn't do it justice. If you want to hear what I said to strike longterm fear into this man child, you'll have to find me on YouTube and email me a request.
My face is currently red just thinking of his eyes starting to bulge as I rolled my forearm up his throat, closing his wind pipe while lifting and pinning him against the nearest wall.
He never spoke again in my presence and made a point of walking quickly away from me when he saw me. He also ALWAYS had a big friend next to him who looked fearful when I met his eyes.
Enough of that. Let's move forward. Five days later in the same hotel bar I'd ended up in every night, I confessed to my girlfriend that I was out of cash.
She asked about a savings account. I laughed. And asked what she was holding. She pushed a sleeve of crackers over. This was different. I'd always been the one with money and stability. Panic set in as I realized we didn't know where we'd sleep the next night.
At least we had each other. Phones didn't work. I couldn't reach anyone from home for the first few days, with one exception.
Nick. Nick and I were cooks who had climbed the ranks of culinary school and high end-line cooking together. He stayed in the city. Connectivity was sparse. His texts went as followed.
After the storm:
Day 3: Plenty of smokes and cold beer
Day 4: The ice has melted but we are doing well. Warm beer is not so bad and the ice cream is gone. Still got smokes.
Day 5: No more beer. Smokes are currency. Gun shots everywhere. We fear night time. I found a body by our smoke spot. Chef is losing it.
Day 8: Never come back here.
To be clear, Nick is a mellow dude. Never gets shaken. Not by anything. I could feel his fear in his texts. I didn't hear from him for the next four days. They were the longest days of my life. I feared I'd never see him again.
My phone rang. It was a friend from my crew of friends from high school.
"You have no idea what I'm looking at ... I can't believe you were able to answer. I haven't talked to anyone. What do you know about the crew?!" This friend and his occupation will remain unspoken. You'll see why.
He continues, "Mikey, I've never seen anything like this. No one in the U.S. has. I just saw a garbage truck full of human bodies ride past me. I'm knee deep in dead bodies right under the Interstate by the Superdome. Robbed a liquor store. Know anyone down here that needs booze, smokes, or bullets?"
I felt like I was in a movie. By this point, Whole Foods had hooked us up (all team members in New Orleans and Metairie) with places to stay, $2k, two paid weeks off and helped us find long-term shelter. I must say, the people of Austin were completely accommodating and generous ... for the most part.
My girlfriend and I hovered in the halls of Whole Foods like ghosts of ourselves who couldn't leave due to unfinished haunting we had been forced to fulfill.
A tour of new hires walked toward us with the Store Trainer. She introduced us like we were animals on a stop in a zoo tour. "Here are our refugees from New Orleans. How have you two been? Enjoying your stay?!"
With a blank face I informed her that just the night before our car had been robbed. All of our possessions were stolen out of my car. My girlfriend cried and they walked away wordlessly. I can't blame them. I didn't know what to say to us either.
We found an apartment. FEMA helped us out a bunch. It was late and took forever to get things settled, but we had cash and time to restart our lives. Living in hotels had killed our funds. On the second day of living in our apartment my bathroom flooded and my phone drowned.
Let's take a second to acknowledge how insane this is. I escaped from my homeland that was drowning, then had my phone get flooded on a third floor apartment due to weak plumbing and strong nerve-induced constipation. If there is a god, she has an interesting sense of humor.
I find out that Nick made it to Baton Rouge. He'd helped evacuate two hotels full of guests in a caravan out of the city that felt just shy of escaping a zombie movie. He'd smashed a cop car's window to steal a car battery to start a truck full of guests. Two years later he quit cooking and became a cop, so he'd "never feel like he couldn't help" ever again.
The Nathaniel Brothers are two brothers who aren't twins. One is named James and the other is Nathaniel. Their dad is close in stature to a man who could have been my dad. Portly and charming. Red-faced and drunk.
The Nathaniel Dad and I walked up to many different bars with the same opener. It wasn't lies. It was survival.
Nathaniel Dad: "I got this round, my boy. We deserve it. Great news deserves great drink. Your brothers are still alive!" (He always had a way of crescendo-ing to a volume that was unignorable [thats a word now]).
Me: "ABITA! AMBER! We need something to drink, barkeep! ABITA Amber and two of your biggest--"
Bartender sadly interrupting: "We...um...we don't have that...sorry."
At this point one of two things happened. Someone would buy us a pitcher. Then someone else would buy us another one right after. Free drinks always make life a bit easier to swallow.
Months later I get a phone call. By this point I'd been back to visit. I'd also been to Europe. But that's another story for a different day. On the other end of the line, my old boss from New Orleans, John.
John: Get back here.
Me: (slow to respond due to sipping a beer). Na. How ya been?
John: Fucking amazing. Our home drowned and we are fucked. Come back.
Me: I like tacos. The Mexicans cook way better here.
John: Mexicans are here. They cook here, too. We need you.
Me: I don't trust that city. I've been back. I'm all done there. Me and the girlfriend have a nice three-floor walk up and--
John: "No one outside of New York says 'walk up' ya douche. Look. We have half a store open. No kitchen. And hungry customers. People that need food need you."
Me: "Where is the cooked food coming from?"
John (hearing rattling beer cans and me laughing) "ARE YOU BUILDING A WALL OUT OF BEER CANS BY A POOL?"
Me: "I told you I was having fun here. I'm established. Safe. I have my walls."
This was something I did on a regular basis. Built levees out of beer cans to keep the Texans away.
John went on to explain that they were sending a small faction of the New Orleans and Metairie cooks to Baton Rouge to cook, pack, and drive the food back home.
Within 24 hours I was standing in front of John with a crew of ELITE cooks. I found another stone-cold culinary killer working a register and added him to our task force.
For the next few months we lived on couches. Floors. In the car. Wherever we could, just to make food for a hungry city.
The first Mardi Gras after the storm, I found myself hammered in a city that was full of life. I grabbed the attention of surrounding tables as I crescendoed the way Nathaniel Dad taught me. It ended with me standing on a chair in a nameless bar on Decatur Street in downtown New Orleans. The sign had blown off the bar. So my question made sense.
Me: "Does anyone know where we are?!"
The crowd responded with confusion.
I hopped up on the chair. Beer in hand. Cigarette in mouth. I inhale and let everyone's attention land on me. The crowd slows its chatter.
Me: "We had a chance to leave. We had a chance to start elsewhere. We had to leave. We didn't have to come back. Do. You. Know. Where. We. Are?!?
We are HOME" (I smashed my bottle and the bar went inside out).
I get homesick on vacation. I love that this city is a vacation destination.
Thanks to those who taught me the meaning of home.
Thanks to those who visit and give our city life blood.
To the baker. The vegan chocolate chip cookies were never the same. I think of you every time I have a cookie. Sorry you didn't make it, brother.