Frankly, I'd rather avoid any heavy figures of speech (It looked like the end of the world), so a few details will have to suffice. Mostly there was the rubble, and caught high among the power lines and branches of dead trees was a lot of random detritus: bits of furniture, toys, tires, garbage, and dead animals. Cars and large appliances were smashed on top of collapsed houses, as if flung there by giant angry babies. A few houses had remained intact by submitting to the water and simply floating away, and now they rested pell-mell in the middle of streets, athwart other houses or mounds of debris. Everywhere the ground was caked in a foul, sun-cracked mud, like the desiccated bed of some prehistoric ocean. Bloated flies swarmed lazily around the bus.
An old woman yelled "Stop!" on the corner of Derbigny and Lizardi. The bus pulled over, and the trailing police car stopped, too. The woman got off and hobbled down Lizardi with the help of an HHS counselor. Her husband stood watching her go; he was nodding slightly, but his face was a blank.
"Is this where you lived?" I asked him.
The man explained that he and his wife had both grown up in the neighborhood, though for many years they'd lived in Gentilly (not far from my own house). They'd evacuated to Pritchard, Ala. His name was Cephus Peavy, which he patiently spelled for me.
"May I ask why your wife wanted to stop here?"
"You may," he said. "That's where my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and niece lived." He closed his eyes and pointed. "They passed away there."
A few minutes later his wife came back. She could barely walk now; some other passengers huddled around her. After a few minutes she was lifted sobbing onto the bus, and her husband, who'd stood off to the side with his arms folded, followed with a meditative look.
At first I'd thought Shirley Rolko's braying patter was a bit much, but I began to feel grateful for it. "Anybody want a Sno-Cone?" she boomed, as we passed an upended Sno-Cone stand. "Look at the ho-ho! Look at Santa! He looks lonely there … " A forlorn plastic Santa reclined in the mud. "You gotta laugh or cry, folks," she'd say, whenever she suspected one of her quips was in doubtful taste. "You gotta laugh or cry. You folks are looking at one of the greatest disasters in history! And you survived! You folks are all survivors."
It was a heartening thought, and everybody hugged her when they got off the bus some three hours later. I did, too. This experience, finally, had felt like closure.
Next: Miracles at Gainesville.
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