My Year of Hurricanes
Returning to New Orleans for the first time.
" 'Cane Cutters,' sir?"
He called me sir. I told him Cane Cutters was an annual party for which we flooded the basement, on purpose, so we could caper around in rubber boats and whatnot. He'd never heard of it. Sic transit, I thought, and asked him where he was going to school these days.
"I was driving back from Hot Springs after the hurricane," he explained, "and ran into this big gas line outside Tallulah, Louisiana. I was on my way to LSU, but I decided then and there just to drive on over to Dallas and go to SMU instead. They don't mind as long as I pay tuition at Tulane." The whole fraternity, in fact, was scattered all over the map now—Cornell, UVA, Chapel Hill, as far west as Washington state. Would they ever return? Burke wasn't sure.
I also stopped at the famous Commander's Palace restaurant, where my curiosity was piqued by a swarm of men wearing jumpsuits and gas masks. One of them fetched the sous chef, Tom Robey, who told me they were cleaning out the walk-in refrigerators that day—"they" being a company that specialized in toxic-waste removal, and not him and his fellow cooks, thank God.
"There was $30,000 worth of meat in there when we evacuated," he said. "So, you can imagine."
But I couldn't really. How to describe the smell? It was a distillation of everything New Orleans, an almost material creature, a Blob. The dining rooms were immaculate—all the tables set with silver and napkins—but I didn't see how they'd ever get rid of that smell. On the other hand, Tom Robey seemed rather used to it already, which led me to wonder what else one could get used to. He thought the restaurant would reopen sometime early next year.
The last leg of my journey was harrowing. The twin-span bridge heading east had collapsed into the lake, and traffic was squeezed into a single lane of Highway 11. After a long crawl over high, darkening water, one found great heaps of debris where the town of Slidell used to be—miles of road like a parted sea that might come crashing down at any moment. Nor was I-10 any relief. Except for the odd patch of generator light, the bobbing rubies of the cars around you, the whole Gulf Coast was almost pitch-black. Motels, with or without power, were booked solid from Louisiana to Florida. Somewhere around Mobile, Ala., I managed to buy a maximum $20 of premium fuel—about 6 gallons—which got me as far as a Comfort Inn in Pensacola, Fla., that had, at last, a single available suite.
The next day I was reunited with my wife and daughter. In my absence the baby had learned to pull herself up to a standing position, and this she demonstrated amid the clutter of our borrowed apartment. Also she said "bye" and "fish." For the moment, New Orleans seemed a lifetime away.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.
Photographs by Blake Bailey. Photograph of damaged home on Slate's home page by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.