Storm Warnings

In disaster a fine old city takes on new meaning.

North on downtown in New Orleans on September 12, 2005.

Credit: Thomas Winship

The hurricane and I arrived in New Orleans only two days apart. I happened to get there first and spent a day ignoring laconic suggestions that a hurricane is more important than renting an apartment. Impending weather is of little concern to the young; the night it struck, I sat with a friend who lived above a garage in the Garden District, drinking Dixie beer and listening to the palms' death rattle. We went out for a walk at midnight—what a trip!—our hats disappearing and the rain stinging our faces. We heard for the first time the keening of wind at high velocity and saw power lines dancing as if possessed and trees shedding their leaves like evening gloves. The air, laden with flotsam moving too fast to be identified, bore the weight of moisture suddenly malevolent, gathering strength and weapons for a brawl we could not escape except by crawling back up the steps and leaning the door shut against projectile rain but not, of course, silencing the amazing racket that such a storm entails.

It was Betsy, not Katrina, and during that night in September 1965, it rode a 10-foot storm surge into the city and did more than a billion dollars' worth of damage, the first such hurricane to achieve that dubious distinction. We emerged the next morning to find prostrate live oaks on all sides; overhead, the gunmetal sky lacked depth but not foreboding. All around lay a silence that plainly said something terrible had occurred and to go forth was to risk encountering a new reality. But we had things to do—my friend worked in a bank, and I was to begin reporting for the daily Times-Picayune—and so we put on our suits and ventured forth in his old Chevy, rolling over a carpet of broken boards, glass, and vegetation.

St. Charles Avenue looked like a lumber camp waiting for the saw; big trees stretched across streetcar tracks like gigantic railroad ties. We weaved back and forth over the rails to avoid them, the only moving thing in sight, a pea-green voyager with tail fins adrift in a calamitous dreamscape, the gorgeous old antebellum homes a somber backdrop, their lawns trashed and magnolias deflowered and facades punctuated by the black holes of smashed windows but still luminous, proud in misfortune, broad porch roofs held up by Corinthian columns and carved acanthus leaves untroubled on their pediments. 

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