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Days are like new acquaintances; on rare occasions, you meet someone and seem to know them right away, for better or for worse. The first few moments I encountered of Wednesday, August 29th 2012, guaranteed the entire day would be a horrible nightmare.
The day before, Tuesday, August 28th was warm with rain and wind in the late afternoon, as the very outer bands of gently kissed lower . Victims of a failed economy, the mostly hard pressed working class citizens of Braithwaite, Louisiana were certainly aware of Isaac, but most had been through so many small category-1 storms, that it seemed like a relatively normal August afternoon with moderately poor weather — breezy and wet. Wind and gusts, several inches of rain, and a few days without power were expected. I went next door to Gus and Ann’s place to see if Gus wanted to move his Ford Explorer to the levee. If so, his vehicle, having been laid up, was going to need a jump from me. Well experienced with hurricanes in southern Louisiana, Gus declined, his opinion being that we would not get over a foot of water, and after some discussion I agreed. But for no particular reason I could put my finger on, I decided to place my own ’99 Dodge pickup truck on the levee anyway. At that point, there were only two other cars up there, further fostering my notion that the storm wasn’t overly threatening and that “all was well.” I walked back to my trailer-apartment at 131 Scarsdale Road in the increasingly blustery wind and rain knowing that I would be secure and dry, had a nice dinner ahead of me, and was well stocked with food and water to cover me for the next few days if necessary.
That night it rained and howled. Feeling secure in the knowledge that I was not in any serious danger I sat down to indulge myself reading Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the original version, which is quite different from the various movies. The beautiful and invaluable book was a gift from my grandparents, an old American edition published in 1915. Inside the front cover was the inscription “for Samuel from your doting grandparents,” written in my grandmother’s neat hand, along with her signature and my grandfather’s: Elizabeth Rightor George and Sam George. After an evening of occasionally weather-disquieted reading I had only a chapter or two left to finish when I decided to go to bed early. At my last glance at the clock, it had been just after nine. As anyone experienced with tropical events might have predicted, at about 11:00 pm, the electricity went out. Hearing the tempest of the violently blowing wind and the rain beating relentlessly against the outside of my apartment’s walls was like listening to Stravinsky; loud, hypnotic, both soothing and shocking with crescendos and the occasional loud shrieking notes.
I woke up about 3:30 am hearing water loudly swirling — as though I were standing in the center of a rigorous rip tide at the beach — something frighteningly and alarmingly different from the sound of water merely flowing by outside. In a state of near disbelief, I discovered that there was water on the floor and the trailer was leaning, so I grabbed pants, shoes and shirt in the dark. In the midst of this surrealistic experience, I quickly dressed. But, it was so dark that it wasn’t until much later I noticed I had my shoes on the wrong feet and my shirt inside-out. Realizing the severity of my plight, I tried to open the door, but couldn’t; something was blocking it. As the cold salty water covered the floor, pooling ever deeper on the lower end of the room, I made my way rapidly to a window which led to an outdoor utility room, and opened it. The easily recognizable smell of natural gas almost gagged me in a wall of toxic fumes, so I slammed the window shut. Rushing back to the door and pushing with all of my might—really more than I knew that I had in me (125 pounds of solid gristle), it slowly opened. What I saw was beyond my beliefs or expectations. I had somehow pushed the entire front porch away and water trickled in. Looking out across my front yard through the blustering wind and rain, I could make out that my neighbor’s van and Gus’ truck were sitting in water up to the windows. For a totally irrational moment, it occurred to me that I might stay there in the doorway and smoke a cigarette while gathering my wits. Surely the water can’t rise much more than this.
Suddenly the trailer lurched giving me the clear sensation that it had actually been floating for a second. Just as quickly, it seemed to become resettled, now seated differently on its foundation. To my astonishment and dismay, cold water began pouring in rapidly over my shoes alerting me to the sudden undeniable severity of my circumstances. I heard glass breaking and smelled natural gas, thick and offensive. I got the hell out of there as fast as I humanly could and managed to balance myself unsteadily on the hand railing. Standing in the heavy gusts of Isaac’s wind, I grasped at an adjacent tree limb hanging over the last remnant of my porch on which I stood, the dark, rushing water flowing just below my feet. My home was now almost halfway underwater. The wooden railing on which I stood began to wobble against the increasing pressure of the rapidly rising tide that continued to roar in. I held steady with my hands on the sharp edge of the tin roof a few inches above my forehead. I was about a foot above the rising water, and remained as motionless as a manikin, wonderstruck at my precarious situation. It won’t rise any more, I thought, I’ll stay right here until I can better assess the situation.
After about 30 seconds the water was at my knees. It was dreamlike, but I wasn’t fearful. The feeling was difficult to describe. I was awake and clear in a way I had never been before. There was an absolute thrill to it all. Adrenaline flooded my brain and my body responded. I felt very near to death but absolutely alive — all of my senses at their keenest! I hadn't yet considered Gus and Ann; my own survival mechanism didn't seem to permit any distractions. Struggling against the tide and wind, I found that I couldn’t get ahold of the roof well enough to climb up. Eventually through tireless effort I managed to reach some little green branches and with them pulled a sturdier limb of a majestic oak tree. Due to what I would later find out was Adhesive Capsulitis (Frozen Shoulder Syndrome), my right arm was almost completely useless. Hoisting myself almost entirely with my left arm, I felt like it took centuries to gain five feet. Finally I achieved an elevation sufficient to get a leg up and clambered up onto the roof, the water just a few seconds behind me.
Standing up, I looked about attempting to survey the situation around me. But all was obscured by the heavy rain, strong gusts, and utter darkness resultant from loss of power in the entire area. I gazed across the yard to Gus and Ann’s place. I couldn’t see it at all. The water was breaching the edges of my roof now. Inundated by a torrent of logical deductions about what must have happened to them — or worse yet might even still be happening to them at that moment — I concluded that if they were still inside their house, they were dead or dying. I tried to convince myself to dive into the water, to try to swim over to their house and save them. I tried to make myself feel guilty for not doing so. I knew logically that swimming over to them was pointless; the black filthy water was cold, deep, dark and full of debris, and it was clearly already too late. Regardless of my wishes to believe the opposite, I began to conclude that they were still in their house, and they had surely drowned by now. Against my own inclinations, and with a sense of internal dilemma, I somehow knew that I had absolutely no reason to feel guilty. Yet, I felt as though I was guilt incarnate. My feelings at this uniquely unsettling and horrifying moment of realization will never be adequately described; though I have gone through the image-laden mental narrative countless times. Feeling a sense of overwhelming agony and grief-stricken devastation, I called out their names into the darkness in vain until my voice became hoarse. Sound doesn’t travel very far when enveloped in the noisy wind and rain of a full blown hurricane.
Yet, to my extreme surprise, there was a response. From somewhere to my left came a voice calling out, “Who’s that?” startling me. I heard footsteps on the tin roof only a few feet away. Then I saw my neighbor Mike, a man I hardly knew at all— although I had been his neighbor for the last month. And, although I will probably never see him again, having shared such an incredible experience I will not likely ever forget him.
“You made it!” he said to me as we hugged each other, an act two working class men in the deep south would have never engaged in under normal circumstances. Mike wore a near hysterical look on what I could see of his face, it being still very dark. I confessed to him my horrible fear that Ann and Gus were dead. Attempting to relieve my anxiety about my cousin and my best friend, he told me that Paul and Chrissy had awakened him, having just banged on his door only a few minutes before, this having saved his life. Mike said that once awake and having become oriented, through his window he had seen Paul and Chrissy trudging towards the levee just past Gus and Ann’s house in waste deep water. Mike suggested that perhaps they also banged on Gus and Ann’s door, and they had probably gotten out too. This optimistic idea appealed to me, though the argument was less than totally convincing. I wanted to believe that it was so, that they were safe. I continued to envision a range of other positive scenarios in which they had also escaped. My mental turmoil was ongoing. Maybe they had left in the middle of the night, possibly on foot. But if they’d left on foot, they certainly wouldn’t have left without me. Perhaps they had made it into their attic safely. Being in only moderately good health, both would have been challenged to do so if there even was an available portal. Their little plastic swimming pool might float. Perhaps they had managed somehow to escape in that. Or, they might even now be up on their own roof safe, incommunicado. Eventually despite my persistent desire to think otherwise, every positive scenario I considered for Gus and Ann seemed unlikely. Overwhelmed by a progressively increasing sense of darkening pessimism, I hoped that at least Paul and Chrissy had made it out. Having become acquainted with her a year before, I knew that this was Chrissy’s first hurricane. The day before, she had been terribly anxious about staying. I heard several people tell her not to worry; it would just be a raging storm. I told her she would probably enjoy it.
As the roof of my trailer began to disappear beneath the steadily rising water, Mike and I both got up into the available branches of the overhanging oak tree. By now, the cold, dark water was lapping over the vanishing roof. When the swelling tide finally seemed to have stopped rising, only the top ridge of the trailer’s roof was exposed. Hesitantly surrendering our positions within the oak branches, we stepped back down onto the roof. From this moment forward the sobering and irreversible monumental catastrophic reality of it all could no longer be denied. I had finally reached that point in my experience where I was actually seeing my life flash before my eyes. But most of those flashes, it seemed, concerned Ann and Gus’ lives. And behind all the flashing thoughts went a mad circular argument about how I should have saved them, but I couldn’t, but I should have, but I couldn’t… Damnit! Damnit all to hell! In a flood of involuntary images, I remembered my earliest memories of Ann when I was about 3 or 4 and she 9 or 10, my cool and mysterious cousin from the city. I remembered first meeting Gus when we were both teenagers in the 70s. A couple of years younger than I, his hair hung longer and he had already developed a broad and in-depth knowledge of the underground scene that I admired; city kids always seem to be ahead of bayou boys.
The wind howled with ferocious intensity, while intermittent powerful gusts threatened to throw me off of the roof. The horizontal rain fall seemed topsy-turvy to me, as opposed to its usual vertical configuration. By this point I had become thoroughly soaked. I was cold and shivering. I took my shirt off a few times and rang it out but it didn’t help. My body was losing heat quickly and it appeared there was very little I was going to be able to do about it. It was still dark, but, by the grace of good luck, Mike had a little flashlight that allowed us some visual access to our near surroundings. Using his light, we noticed various items of debris washing up to the edge of the roof. Eventually, I found a garbage bag that had floated up to the roof of my trailer just below me. I scooped it up into my hands to find it filled with putrescent refuse. Without regard to the issues of cleanliness or hygiene, I emptied the bag of its foul contents, turned it inside out, and poked a hole in it. Then after taking a deep breath, I pulled the filthy plastic over my head, then down around my body to form a makeshift poncho. That helped a lot; my body heat began to stabilize. Observing with admiration that my new-found poncho was a Lawn-and-Leaf bag as opposed to a mere garbage bag, Mike nonetheless declined my offer to trade it to him for the hooded rain poncho he was wearing. Working in concert from our perch, Mike and I found some empty bottles with the garbage and began patiently filling them up with rain water that was coming off the oak tree in little rivulets. We’d concluded that we really didn’t know how long we would be up there and might need drinking water.
After what had seemed like an eternity in the cold, windy, wet darkness, the sun finally began to break the horizon. Though it was still dark, still cloud covered and raining hard, we could behold the lake of Isaac’s flood water from the Gulf of Mexico surrounding us as far as the eye could see. If only my cell phone hadn’t gotten soaked, I could have made a video of this unbelievable spectacle; words simply could not describe the scene. There were garbage cans, hot water heaters, porches, toys, furniture; all kinds of things floating about. Some of the nearby houses were completely submerged; others had the very tops of their roofs sticking up, cresting above the tide. The scene was ghostly and dreary and it somehow looked permanent.
After a while I sat down on the top ridge of my trailer’s roof pulling my garbage bag tight around me. All the fire-ants in the area were floating in the flood water, crawling about on everything. Both Mike and I had dozens and dozens of bites. The top of the oak tree was filled with squirrels and bullfrogs, and big balls of long, pail white worms were lying here and there. I spied a nutria (a large south American water rat) a few feet away from the trailer trapped on some floating debris. By now I was in a state of mild shock, progressively desperate, and nearing mental exhaustion. I fancied there was a water moccasin at every turn, but I didn’t actually see any snakes to validate my paranoia.
Mike, no doubt shocked and numb, much like I was, began rambling about his motorcycle and all the accessories he had added to it. I wasn’t the least bit interested, but I understood that he was attempting anything that would have the remotest semblance to normalcy, so bizarre was our situation. I pulled into my garbage bag by degrees like a turtle and closed the hole to just big enough an opening to breathe. Eventually, Mike slowed his monologue then stopped. There was only the wind and the rain and the on-going annoying and painful ant bites for a good hour.
Then Mike mumbled something. I poked out of my shell a little and said “What?”
“There’s a deer right in back of you,” he said in a monotone. He’s losing it, I thought. But I turned to look anyway, and be damned; a baby deer was a few feet from the trailer swimming desperately. The doe reached the trailer, saw the two humans, and instinctively turned and angled away. We both watched in silent awe as it struggled to get away from us. Then it turned and swam back to us, reached the trailer, rotated and retreated again. It changed its mind yet again, circled, pulled toward the trailer, beached on the roof with us and lay there panting and in shock. The doe was so exhausted that when I approached and began to pet it, she didn’t so much as flinch. The bewildered and fatigued wild animal sat gasping on the trailer roof with Mike and me. By now the sun was well up in the sky, and no matter how long we stared at our surroundings wishing that we would awaken from this nightmare, the scene could never be dismissed. Normally a person never experiences such dreamlike scenarios, but this was altogether too real. We saw a boat pass, looked at each other, then began screaming and waving our arms like maniacs, as though all the ant bites had finally driven us mad. But the people in the boat either hadn’t seen or heard us, or they simply elected to ignore our calls and continued going on their way. Mike and I were stunned for a moment — almost in a state of disbelief. Like Robinson Crusoe stranded on a desert island, we were challenged to consider our survival. We began to discuss exactly what we might be able to do to best deal with our situation. All kinds of materials were floating about as debris in the water near us, and we considered each as a potential aid to survival. There was a large piece of tin which had covered the porch and was now hanging straight down over the front door, mostly under the water. We tried to raise it up and pry it loose to use as a makeshift shelter somehow (we would figure out exactly how later); but our efforts were in vain, as it wouldn’t budge. We were both rewarded with minor lacerations on our hands for our innovative efforts. We went through some garbage for more bottles in which to collect rain water, but didn’t find much else of interest. I had begun to notice that Mike was keeping a little bit more than what might have been considered a normal distance away from me, I suspected because my Lawn-and-Leaf bag poncho stunk to high heaven. On the other hand, I couldn’t get away from myself, so I had become somewhat numbed to my outerwear’s uniquely attractive bouquet.
Time lost meaning as we waited, but before long we were greeted to the sight of what I could only see as a bad omen. We saw Ann and Gus’s pool floating by about 50 feet away, held above water by its inflatable ring. I looked at it with deep anxiety. It was nearly full of water; still I was wishing they would pop up from it and wave. We discussed swimming to get it for our rooftop shelter, or to use it as a boat. I’m a great swimmer and Mike claimed to be also, but neither of us really wanted to dive into the muck. We thought we might see if it floated closer, and would keep an eye on it, ultimately making our decision later. At almost the same instant, in the distance another motorboat passed us. It was definitely closer than the last one had been, but our mad gyrations and throat burning screams didn’t get any attention; the boat just kept going by. Having now been passed by twice, we sat down dejected and remained still and quiet for a good while.
It must have been about 10 in the morning when Mike and I started talking about all the food we had stocked in our apartments for after the hurricane; all ruined now. The stuff in his pantry seemed almost as appealing as mine. We were making ourselves hungry. He actually had a little food with him, a couple of cans of vegetables and a box of granola. But we agreed we should save it. We talked about glorious meals we had eaten in the past, Chinese food, greasy burgers, steaks, hog-ass and cabbage, Gumbo, fried shrimp; all the kinds of stuff real Louisianans thrive on. Our discussion about food was enticing. Mostly, though, I just wanted coffee and a cigarette, and to be warm and dry.
As our endless waiting in the surrealistic sea of flood water continued unabated, an armadillo joined us, and many squirrels swarmed in the branches above us. All these animals together brought to mind Al Capone, Ann’s little dog, probably drowned just next door. I began thinking about all my ruined possessions just below me — family pictures, several decades’ worth of correspondence and a fabulous collection of rare books. Yet, none of it meant anything compared to the increasingly likely realization that I would never see my cousin Ann again, or Gus, my dear friend of nearly 40 years.
Sometime after noon, another boat came by; it was much closer to us this time, but we still couldn’t catch their attention, being obscured by the oak tree and drowned out by the noise from the hurricane, as well as the boat’s engine. We’d been passed by yet again. But, because the boat was going right down Scarsdale Road which was bordered by trees, they would have to return the same way. This raised our spirits and instilled hope in us that our nightmarish experience might be coming to an end. About a half hour later they reappeared and we hailed them. They were Braithwaite citizens, good Samaritans really, because the authorities would not start patrolling till the next day. If not for this gentleman and his grandson, we may have been stuck on that roof for another night and day. Mike and I placed the frightened doe in the boat, got in, and were away, ducking under power lines. In a few moments we were at the levee. The deer was released. My truck was high and dry. The authorities talked to us for a while, and then allowed us to go sit in the ferry boat where it was dry and warm. There was another survivor there, an old school hippie type named Mack. He gave me some cigarettes and the three of us shared Mike’s bag of granola. Despite all our various woes, we felt elated to be alive. It was a sane, sober, sad, thankful moment, and there seemed to be a glimmer of hope.
Soon, a Port Authority boat came along and tied up onto the ferry. The Mississippi River was so rough that we needed help boarding. We sat there bobbing up and down wondering why we weren’t seasick because it was rough; we had to hold on just to remain in one place. Soon a few more people had come on and one lady had brought two cats and a dog. I thought again sadly of Al Capone, the little dog who liked to come over to my house whenever he escaped. He would just show up at my door, his face mischievous and his tail wagging. A little later, Gus or Ann would come and get him.
We made it across the river to Belle Chasse where a van brought us to a nearby YMCA which was to be our temporary shelter. I signed in and was tagged. I was in a truly bedraggled state, soaking wet from head to toe, my clothes were filthy, and I smelled like garbage. One of the kind ladies found me a towel and a clean shirt. That was all she could come up with; they had no food or even bottled water. They simply weren’t prepared for this; the magnitude of Hurricane Isaac had taken everyone by surprise. After a long hot rejuvenating shower, I attempted to wash my clothing as best I could. Putting on the clean t-shirt I’d been so kindly provided, I wrapped the towel about my waist and began the laborious task of drying my pants with a hairdryer. To my slight annoyance, a man walked in and started talking to me. I was in one devil of a state of mental turmoil and didn’t want to chit chat. He introduced himself as Jim; he was a big friendly fellow, but I wanted to be alone. Jim insisted that we share our experiences beginning with what had happened to me. After I had offered him my account, he recounted his experience. It turned out he was in the same hellish fix, having been separated from his friend while escaping and dreading the man hadn’t made it. Jim left for a moment then came back with a pair of dry socks for me. I was starting to like this guy.
I found Mike by the front door. He had managed to call a cab to take him to New Orleans to check on his girlfriend who hadn’t been answering his calls. He lent me $20 and hit the road. I envied him. I had people I could call too, but my cell phone was dead and I didn’t know any of my friends’ numbers. A crisis such as this highlights the fundamental shortcoming of cell phones: we never commit important numbers to memory, because we never dial them, merely highlight a name and press the green button.
Leaving my shoes out to dry, I wandered around in my dry socks, damp pants and clean shirt. I found a makeshift medical center. My mind was not calm, not confident, and not peaceful; the adrenaline had long worn off and I was a mess, though feeling clean. I asked the nurse for a Valium, because I felt a fearful panic coming on. She told me that if they had any Valium, they would take it themselves.
It was starting to get dark, and some military personnel came around and set up cots for all of us. I was starving, but food was very short that first night. They served us one hot dog with chili and a small bag of chips. I wolfed it down and went back for more, but they had run out. As I lay in my cot that night listening to 50 new roommates coughing, mumbling, and snoring, I wondered if I would ever know peace and tranquility again. I was a brand new person with nothing but one pair of dirty clothes and $20. And I still had my truck, though it was no use to me at the moment being across the river.
The next day, Thursday August 31st, we were fed a little better. There were big cold ham sandwiches and you could eat all you wanted to. I gorged. Jim brought me to a grocery store that was open and running with a generator. He bought me a hairbrush, razor blades, a few pair of socks, some toothpaste and a toothbrush. What a fine gentleman he was. And since then I cannot even begin to list much less thank all the friends and strangers who have helped me with clothes, food, money, shelter, and hope.
It was a long warm drizzly day and we sat around and ate, smoked cigarettes, and swapped stories. There wasn’t anything else to do. I never once got Gus and Ann out of my mind.
The next morning, Friday, September 1st was hectic. We all were sitting around eating our ham sandwiches when someone announced that a bus was coming at 2:00 in the afternoon and we would be shipped to Shreveport to another shelter. We were to fold up our cots and take them and all our possessions with us. Shreveport? I didn’t want to go. Many people simply grabbed their stuff and went back to their homes in Belle Chasse where they would reside for a few days without electricity. But anyone from across the river couldn’t possibly go home. Damn. We packed up all our gear and waited. I found someone who lent me a charger. As soon as I plugged my phone in, it started working again. I highlighted “Brian,” my lifelong friend, and pressed the button. I told him what happened, and he said he would be there in a few hours and bring me to his house in Lafourche Parish. I was overjoyed. A few minutes later, someone told me about an article they had just seen in the paper. . The names were not given, but I knew it was Gus and Ann, two of my best friends and companions. I called the police and told them what I knew. They took my number. A few moments later the coroner’s office called me. The gentleman asked me to describe Gus and Ann. I gave vivid descriptions. The man remained silent. “Please tell me they don’t match my descriptions,” I pleaded.
“They match all too well,” he replied. “Stay where you are and I will come by in a few minutes to show you some pictures.”
Outside the bus had arrived and all the refugees were lining up to board. I said goodbye to some friends, and then waited outside alone for the coroner as the bus pulled away. I was imagining what inhaling two lungs full of water would be like. I must have been ringing my hands and gnashing my teeth.
John Marie, the Plaquemines parish coroner’s investigator, pulled up. We spoke briefly, and then he asked me to get in his car. He pulled out a folder, began to open it, but hesitated. “This is going to be hard,” he said looking me right in the eyes. “They were in the water for 36 hours.” Then he opened the file. There were two photos face down. He flipped one over: Gus (Augustus P. Saunders). Definitely Gus, not many people have such long hair and beard, and he was wearing the same shirt he had on when I went to his house Tuesday afternoon. His eyes were closed, but the lids and the area around them were black.
“That’s definitely him,” I told the man. He put it back face down, and flipped over the other one: Ann (Ann E. George). Gus’s corpse had looked horrifying. Ann’s was even worse, so bloated, and so absolutely devoid of life. I knew I would never be able to get away from the images in those photos now etched permanently in my memory. “That’s Ann,” I said staring stupidly at the photo. He put it away.
You won’t have to view the bodies,” he told me mercifully, “It’s a positive ID.”
We spoke a bit; he gave me his card and drove away. I sat down in the parking lot of the Belle Chasse YMCA and I now felt the infinite weight of the world on my shoulders. Guilt’s cruel mercilessness overwhelmed me. I would have traded places with my deceased friends and felt as though I would have been much better off dead. But I knew it was a childish and self-pitying sentiment, so I emptied my mind and just sat. Soon my friend Brian arrived and I quietly sighed with relief, never having been so glad to see anyone before in my life.
Brian looked a little haggard. He had also been through a hurricane and had spent the last few days with scant luxuries and barely enough necessities. We drove to highway 90 and headed west. The drive was rather tedious because we had to come to a complete halt at every stop light due to the lack of power in the area. Brian told me he too hadn’t had a proper hot meal in several days, because Lafourche parish was also without electricity. But he informed me that we would find something good to eat in Boutte, the only town on our way that still had power. We pulled into a Zydeco’s restaurant. I ordered a beer and the Soft Shelled Crab Platter. It came with salad, bread, and sweet potato French fries. For a few brief moments I was no longer a refugee, but rather a hungry man enjoying a delectable meal.
Finishing the last quarter of a crunchy spicy crab, I now realized the things I had taken for granted before were precious, and this included not only the lives of Gus and Ann, but also my own. I had no idea what the future might hold, but I was alive, well fed, and with excellent company. To ask for anything more might anger the universe and I was too well aware of nature’s wrath to take such a chance.
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