This article is part of an ongoing series by Blake Bailey, a New Orleans resident who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read more of his dispatches.
Last week my wife and I rode out Hurricane Katrina at a friend's house in Oxford, Miss., watching the Weather Channel and checking online until we were pretty sure our home in New Orleans—where we'd lived all of two months—was a total loss. Then it was back to work.
At such times, I find work is the only anodyne. On the morning of 9/11, for example, we watched TV long enough to see the south tower fall and maybe 15 replays of the plane hitting it. Then I went upstairs and worked until dinner, writing almost five finished pages—twice my usual output. While I was working, I felt fine; afterward, though, I checked e-mail and learned that Nostradamus had predicted 9/11 ("Two brothers torn apart by Chaos ... ") and that World War III was imminent.
In Oxford, I began multitasking as soon as I saw, online, the placid Atlantis that used to be my neighborhood. While our baby daughter rolled around the carpet with a dachshund named Bud, I called Travelocity to cancel a Labor Day flight from New Orleans to Cleveland; then, while Travelocity kept me on hold, I used my cell phone to call our insurance company in New Orleans. It was odd to hear the pleasant recorded message asking whether I wanted to report a claim.
"Yes, I do," I said. "Our house is really, really flooded—that is, I think it's flooded—certainly looks that way—and we don't have flood insurance per se. I'm pretty sure we're covered for wind-damage, though I don't have the papers right in front of me." (This was true: My insurance policy and all other vital documents were left behind.) "Anyway my name is—"
Then the Travelocity person came back on the other line and I told my insurance company (its voice mail rather) that I'd call back. Travelocity informed me that Continental Airlines had yet to cancel my flight; since it was a nonrefundable ticket I'd either have to reschedule or accept a penalty worth almost the entire price of the ticket. I remonstrated: The flight left in four days, I pointed out, from New Orleans; in all likelihood swamp boats would be trolling the tarmacs. Travelocity advised me to take it up with the airline. I hung up—bitterly—and called my insurance company, whereupon I was told that the voice-mail box was now full.
The next day I went to a nice coffee shop on the Oxford town square and tried to get some work done on my book, a biography of John Cheever. I was editing (labeling, pruning, cutting, and pasting) the bits I'd transcribed from Cheever's 1956 journal. I noted, as always, the incongruity between Cheever's outer and inner lives: He'd just finished The Wapshot Chronicle, sold a story to the movies, and was about to take his family to Italy for a year. Meanwhile, he was miserable as ever—alcoholic, lonely, furtively bisexual. Now and then I'd look up from my laptop and stare out at the sun-dappled square; unlike Cheever in 1956, I mused, my own life (outer) had gone absolutely to shit. Yet—at that moment anyway—I didn't feel half-bad.
In the midst of this reverie I saw a familiar face: a former student of mine named Della, whom I knew from my previous life in New Orleans as a bachelor eighth-grade English teacher. Della had evacuated with her mother, a proudly bohemian woman who'd supported herself as a freelance set-designer for local movie productions. In the past couple of years the Industry had come to New Orleans in a big way, and Della's mother had prospered modestly. She'd just finished a 10-year renovation on her funky home in Mid City, near Bayou St. John.
"So much for that," she said tipsily. "I guess I can always go back to bartending, though I imagine things will be pretty medieval in New Orleans. Come see me sometime and I'll give you a cup of mead."
We talked about the looting, which had seemed rather larky and sensible at the outset—groceries, diapers, that sort of thing—but had turned ugly amid a dawning sense of futility. The gun department at a Wal-Mart supercenter had been ransacked. Gangs of armed thugs were roaming the city, taking potshots at helicopters. We imagined a sort of Escape From New York scenario whereby President Bush (if he ever got around to visiting) crash-landed somewhere in the Ninth Ward. Given that most American militia were deployed elsewhere in the world, they'd have to send in Snake Plissken to retrieve the nuclear codes.