Nineteen sixty-five. Tail end of a notably mild hurricane season. It rained so hard the yards between the houses flooded—standing water for three days—but that was normal. This mid-September storm was erratic, busybodied; it seemed not to be able to make up its mind on where to go. “Wandering Hurricane Betsy, large and tempestuous,” the newspapers said.
The house was full of babies. Karen was not yet one; that birthday was two weeks away. Carl had just turned two. Michael was five. Darryl, four. Valeria, eight.
Simon had been called by NASA to join the emergency crew piling sandbags, but that was just in case. He expected to get right back. And anyway, Uncle Joe was staying at the house then. He was in between loves. No one knew the details, but some woman had put him out, or he had left some woman. Neither scenario was unusual for him.
“We all went to bed,” says Deborah.
Last she knew, the hurricane had turned, was headed to coastal Florida.
“All of a sudden I hear: ‘Get out the bed. Now, now, now.’”
It was midnight.
“We put our feet down on the floor.”
The house turned frantic.
Miss Ivory said, “Get the baby bag.” Karen was the baby.
Later, it was said that the water rose 20 feet in 15 minutes.
There was no attic to climb up into, no way to sit above it all to wait it out. When Uncle Joe opened the front door, water bum-rushed him. Deborah panicked: “We gon die, we gon die.”
“She started screaming at the top of her lungs like a person going crazy. So I slapped the piss out of her,” says Uncle Joe now. “Shut up,” he remembers saying. “This ain’t no damn movie.”
The water was waist-deep on the two adults. They waded through snakes and downed wires toward the high ground of Chef Menteur Highway, which was, for once, carless, to shelter in Mr. LaNasa’s high-sitting trailer park business at the corner.
Carl rode Uncle Joe’s back, Deborah his side, holding tight to the baby bag. Mom had Karen and Valeria, one on either hip.
Eddie, Michael, and Darryl swam like fish.
“I was a tiny boy,” says Michael. “Water was so high. I’m swimming, I’m swimming. The dogs, too. The water was moving through here like we was in a river.”
He’s right. The water was sweeping us down the street.
The water had in fact swept in like a river, its course and fury made possible by many things, most of them man-made. Poorly constructed levees, for one. And two: navigation canals touted as great economic engines that would raise the profile of a weakened Port of New Orleans by creating more efficient water routes that would, it was hoped, draw more commercial traffic.
The Industrial Canal, dredged in 1923, physically separating New Orleans East from the rest of the city in order to link the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, was the first. Then in 1942, the Intracoastal Waterway was expanded through eastern New Orleans to connect with the Industrial Canal. But in 1958, construction began on one, more damaging than the rest: 70 federally funded miles of watery channel linking the Gulf of Mexico to the heart of New Orleans, shortening ocean vessels’ travel distance by 63 miles. It would officially be named the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, but everyone would call it MR-GO.
As with much of New Orleans East’s development, in the early days of MR-GO only its positives were touted. In 1956, Louisiana governor Earl K. Long praised the “inestimable value to (1) the immediate area through which it passes, (2) the state of Louisiana and the city and port of New Orleans, (3) and the entire Mississippi Valley.” When construction began in 1958, the marshes lit up in a dynamite explosion that BOOM, BOOM, BOOMED, debris flying 300 feet in the air, raining fragments and mud on the heads of scurrying city officials, “many of whom looked for cover that was nowhere to be found,” the local paper reported.
Mayor Chep Morrison called it “one of the miracles of our time that will have the effect of bringing another Mississippi River to New Orleans.” He could not know just how true his prophecy would turn out to be.
Soon after it was built, the environmental catastrophe MR-GO wrought would become evident. Ghost cypress tree trunks stood up everywhere in the water like witnesses, evidence of vanquished cypress forests. The now unrestrained salt water that flowed in from the Gulf would damage surrounding wetlands and lagoons, and erode the natural storm surge barrier protecting low-lying places like New Orleans East.
This is what happened during Hurricane Betsy: 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds blew in from the east, pushing swollen Gulf waters across Lake Borgne, a vast lagoon surrounded by marshes and open to the Gulf. Water entered the funnel formed by the Intracoastal Waterway and MR-GO. Within this network of man-made canals, the storm surge reached ten feet and topped the levees surrounding it, breaching some.
This is how water came to be rushing in at the front door when Uncle Joe opened it; and how water came to flood more than 160,000 homes, rising to eaves height in some. At the same time, Lake Pontchartrain’s surge entered the Industrial Canal and ruptured adjacent levees, including those in the Lower Ninth Ward, topographically higher than the East, but equally vulnerable for how close it is to the canal.
It was a flood so devastating that our neighbor Walter Davis said, “I was thinking, ‘Man, I can tell my grandkids about this.’ That’s how awesome Betsy was.” So awesome was Betsy that her name was retired from the tropical cyclone naming list. Governor John McKeithen vowed on television and on the radio, in front of everybody, that “nothing like this will ever happen again.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson flew into the Lower Ninth Ward the next day—the area, even then, was a drowned and abandoned symbol of water’s destructive power when facilitated by human error—declaring the city and surrounding areas a disaster zone and eventually pledging an $85 million protection plan that would rebuild levees and shore up flood protection systems, which would, in August 2005, 40 years after Betsy, fail.
Even though expanses of New Orleans East Inc.’s property lay underwater, development surged on. Everyone vowed to rebuild higher, better. The levees would be shored up by the government just as Lyndon Johnson promised. New Orleans East Inc. and other eastern developers would use this fact in their advertisements to lure more and more people to the area. And in 1968, Congress would spur this repopulation along by creating the National Flood Insurance Program, which allowed people to buy flood insurance at low rates, even and especially in dangerous flood zones.
August 28th, 2005–September 4th, 2005
You gotta realize . . . the Yellow House was up and running.
A few years after the Water, Carl reconstructed for me what happened.
Carl and Michael sat outside the house, near to the curb. They were grilling, a half gallon of gin between them. The Mississippi River on one side, Lake Pontchartrain on the other. They were in between water. People who were evacuating drove past the intersection where Chef Menteur met Wilson, heading west toward the city; from Chef Menteur Highway they could see the smoke rising off Carl and Michael’s grill.
You gotta realize, Mo. It’s August. It’s beautiful. A Sunday. I then cut all the grass, weed-eated and everything. Had it looking pretty.
Mike, I don’t b’lee I’m going nowhere, Carl had said.
“I know I ain’t going,” Michael said back.
The city had imposed a 6 p.m. curfew.
It got dark, got to be 8, 8:30, still no rain or nothing. Shit, see bout 11, 11:30 at night that’s when it started to rain. When Carl tells a story he always gives two close options for the truth.
He packed his ice chest and told Michael good-bye, nothing memorable, and drove off in his pickup truck. Michael left to find his girlfriend, Angela, at their house on Charbonnet Street in the Lower Ninth Ward to see where they might head. It was already too late; he knew he was not going far.
The Yellow House, where Carl lived off and on when he had fallen out with Monica, stayed behind. Cords stayed plugged into the walls. His boil pots sat underneath the kitchen sink. That’s what “the Yellow House was up and running” was meant to say.
Carl took Chef Menteur to Paris Road to Press Drive to the brick house where Monica lived with their three girls. The street was empty and quiet, not unlike its normal self. Carl did not know if anyone else was around. Why should he have needed to know? He was feeling good.
Mindy and Tiger, his Pekingese dogs, did not appear at the door when he entered, but soon they were running by his slippered feet. The house phone was already ringing. Even though it was 2005, Carl still did not have a cell phone, having no desire whatsoever to be reached.
Mama and them kept calling, Boy, get your ass out the house.
He sat in the recliner and watched the television.
Well fuck, by my drinking I had then fell asleep, full of that gin.
He woke and moved from the chair to the bed, but before he slept again he made small preparations, just based on feeling.
Monica had a big ole deep attic, so I put the steps down. I had already mapped it out in case I had to get out of there. I had a hatchet up there already with the bottled water. Had my gun, the same gun right there, had my water and everything, the meat cleaver.
See bout three, four in the morning, the dogs in the bed scratching me, licking on me.
Damn, it’s dark.
You could hear it storming outside. I put my feet down.
Sound like a damn freight train derailing. Shit crashing. Shit flying, hitting shit.
I can’t see nothing, but I know the house. I throw Mindy and them up the attic steps.
I go in the icebox take the water out there. Shit, bout five minutes later the icebox come off the ground. The icebox floating. I got to go up now myself, the water . . . I got pajamas on.On the way back, swimming, saltwater rushed into Carl’s mouth. Two, three more days passed in the same way with nothing changing.
I took a pair of jeans, I still got them jeans, my Katrina jeans. I go up there. Just waiting. Just riding it out.
Sitting there looking at the water coming. I got my gun, I got a light on my head, I say damn the hurricane rolling out there.
That water coming up higher and higher.
My mother calls Harlem from Hattiesburg, says, “Water is now coming into the house. We’re calling for help.” The phone line cuts out right as she is speaking so that is all I have to go on for three days.
It’s been bout four, five hours. All a sudden, the water don’t look like it’s coming no higher. It just stopped right there, bout six or seven feet. You could hear all kind of birds then came through all the windows.
See when daybreak come, that water it start coming again, it start coming all the way now.
I got to start cutting now.
The water coming.
It’s daytime now. I can cut now. The water steady rising.
I said, Shit I gotta get through this attic now.
Never panic, Mo. You can never panic.
I’m cutting through that sucker. I got an ax, I’m cutting through that son of a bitch.
I was gonna shoot my way through it if it wasn’t gone cut. I was gonna blow some holes through that son of a bitch. I’m getting out that roof.
Once I got my head out, I looked round.
“Hey man, I thought y’all was gone,” someone on a roof several houses down called.
Water edged the roof. Carl’s green boat was nowhere in sight.
It’s hot outside now, you gotta realize. They had a bucket floating. That’s how I kept the roof at the pitch cool.
It’s beaming on that roof. That attic don’t cool down until nine or ten o’clock at night. We’d stay up and talk all the way till about midnight. Survival shit. If them people don’t come, we have to swim out of here or this or that. I said whenever y’all ready but let’s give it a couple days.
Back then, the old folks across the way was telling stories bout they had a big alligator in the water. I mean if I had to swim I would have but you ain’t gone get in no water and people saying they got an alligator.
After three days, me and another dude got in the water.
There were still rules in the new Old World.
You swam up the middle of the street. You knew the neighborhood. We never dove because you never knew if they had a post or something down there. We swam to where them old people was. We made sure they were all right. We stood there a couple of hours, one dude had food and was grilling and smoking cigarettes.
“You must have been hungry,” I say.
But if you eat you got to use the bathroom.
On the way back, swimming, saltwater rushed into Carl’s mouth.
Two, three more days passed in the same way with nothing changing.