As the rubber rescue boat launches, I ask our team leader for the name of the street we're heading down. He looks down at his map of the New Orleans lakefront and says we're going south on West End Blvd., a major artery that connects I-10 to the neighborhoods just south of Lake Pontchartrain. It's also part of the route I took to school most mornings. If there weren't blue street signs poking out of the water, you might have convinced me this was underwater Nebraska. It has been tough this week to stare down at battered and sunken landmarks, but that I can no longer recognize a street I've driven down hundreds of times is something else entirely.
This afternoon, I'm riding along with a four-man search-and-rescue squad from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. The boat I'm on is covering a seven-block-by-four-block patch of residential area in Lakeview. None of the houses we drive past has a visible front door, but a few have second floors or attics that didn't sink into the murky depths. When we spot a house that's at least partially unsubmerged, the crew bangs on the roof and windows with fists and oars and shouts loud enough to wake a deep sleeper—"Anybody home?!", "Food and water! We're here to help!", and (once), "Hot dogs and beer!" When there's no response, someone sprays a hot pink X on the side wall along with the date and unit designation.
In New Orleans, some neighborhoods flood every time it rains, but Lakeview wasn't like that. Elderly people and middle-class families bought homes here knowing that the area has stayed dry through countless thunderstorms and a hurricane or two. Then the levee was breached, the water rose, and trapped people chopped through their roofs with axes to escape the surge. On every other block, there's a house with a makeshift escape hatch; one still has an ice chest perched beside it.
By now, everyone who's going to be fished out of Lakeview probably has been. Everything's still until the boat stirs the empty houses with its wake. In some places, the furniture bobs up and down next to the last Coke bottle someone drank from or the last paperback they flipped through. Each street looks like someone dumped a messy play room into an aquarium. There's a Big Wheel, a small plastic slide, chairs, a Jacuzzi, a Pepsi machine, and a dozen inflatable plastic balls.
All the debris makes the searching and rescuing tedious and exhausting, even for the lazy reporters who sit there doing nothing while the soldiers sweat buckets. The motor chews up a giant garbage bag, and we—by we, I mean they—spend 30 minutes cutting it out piece by piece. We nearly beach ourselves on the roof of a car that's just below the surface. We get stuck in a tree. The black rubber boat absorbs the direct sunlight and boils our drinking water. In three hours, none of the rescue boats has spotted a holdout or a person trapped in an attic, just a frail-looking cat in a second-story window that runs and hides when a soldier jumps on the roof.
Since there are no signs of life, I study the surface of the water. It smells a lot worse when you're sitting in it than when you're looking down at it. The stench of gasoline is so strong that my head throbs. Still, I can't help but gaze into it. The water isn't as static and opaque as it looked from 20 feet above. Smoky black wisps dissolve and re-form every few seconds as we glide by. The scary thing is that there aren't any mosquitoes flitting about—if they're afraid of this stuff, we humans have got to be seriously screwed.
Sitting in the middle of 12-foot-high floodwater for an afternoon makes me understand what it must be like for those gloomy psychics who see destruction around every corner. An hour into the cruise, I realize that everything I look at will get bulldozed—you can't renovate a place that's more liquid than solid. Every time the motor revs and we lurch forward, I see another two-story home crumbling to the ground. By the end of the day, I've condemned the entire neighborhood—houses where friends used to live, a vet's office, an elementary school.
After three hours of sloshing around, there's an inch of flood water in the boat, and it saturates my socks and sneakers. When we make landfall across the street from a Walgreens, I'm ordered to sit on the grass and take off my shoes. Soldiers line up to pour out their canteens over my tainted feet—"this is all biblical and shit," one says—and an Army medic tosses in half an IV bag's worth of saline solution. After I rub down with an antiseptic gel, my feet are officially clean. My gray New Balance sneakers, though, have to be retired. To keep my shoeless feet from touching the ground, a paramedic swaddles them in the first thing he sees: bright red plastic biohazard bags. I ride back to Baton Rouge with the bags crinkling around my feet and my shoes in plastic bags. The next morning, I toss them in a wind-blown garbage can and drape the red biohazard bags neatly on top.