Warm, Dry, Drunk, and “Safe” in Austin, TX: A Katrina Memoir, pt. 1

Downtown Austin Skyline- viewed northward from S. Congress

Downtown Austin Skyline- viewed northward from S. Congress

August-September 2005

It was a dark and stormy night. No, really. A dark, stormy, shitty night along the Gulf Coast, from Lake Charles, LA to Biloxi, MS- and more were on their way. Good thing I was warm, dry, drunk and “safe” on the corner of East 6th St. and Red River in downtown Austin, Texas. I had escaped the apocalyptic movie scene of Interstate 10, 150 mph winds, levee failures, catastrophic floods, crumbling houses, and the fear of being caught gun-less in a threatening atmosphere.

Instead, I was in a mental no-mans-land, (“limbo” is my most hated realm to exist in) with several others; wondering when the news reports were going to assure us that things had calmed down, that everything was fine, the wind was subsiding, the people who stayed were ok, its safe to return home now, yaddy-yadda-yadda. But no.

I can no longer see the banner stating “Breaking News” on a television screen without flashing back to that week, because every hour of every day during the initial aftermath- some new crisis was erupting. It was a full week of “Breaking News”. The flooding kept getting worse. Tensions kept rising. Emergency personnel were out of supplies. Communications shut down. Cops were shooting people. People were shooting cops. People were shooting people. Looting. Levees were failing: Uptown, Downtown, Eastbank, Westbank, Lakeside, Mid-City, Da Parish. Houses on fire. A warf on fire. Oil spilling out of a refinery. The list kept going on and on.

I had nothing to turn to except for buddhism and alcohol. When I wasn’t out drinking with the other evacuees, I was holed up with a fat book by the Dalai Lama, in a studio at the Metropolis Apartments off of East Riverside, just south of downtown, one of those places that, from the outside perspective, seems like its helping to “Keep Austin Weird”, with its “funky” paint job and art installations around the property, and a swimming pool where tenants claimed that they spotted “The Enigma*” who was almost camouflaged within the blues of the pool.
All this time, I had been ferociously documenting my experiences in a notebook. The circumstances of the disaster had motivated me to write. I enjoyed it and looked forward to it throughout the day. I guess it was therapeutic.

A few days later, I decided to move on from Austin to live and work with my New Orleans-brother in his hometown of St. Louis, MO. Except…on the train ride up there, I experienced the most nauseating loneliness that was paired up with the most perfect migraine headache. Oh…how I wished I was in a private train car so I could just cry and mourn without fellow passengers looking at me with their curious, concerned, nosey eyes.

It occurred to me that I was about to start over in a new city- St. Louis, and I didn’t want to start over in the truest sense. I was feeling less and less strong the longer I was by myself on that train. So I changed my course. I would be getting off halfway in Little Rock, AR, stay overnight with a friend, and then hop on a plane to Portland, OR in the morning, to seek refuge in the home of my mom and the city of my youth. Yes, this plan made me feel better, despite the splitting headache, which didn’t subside until I fell asleep in Arkansas that night.

So I flew to Portland, feeling hopeful that I could take care of business and deal with things better with family and friends by my side. I’d figure out the future from there…after all, I was safe and sound across the country from the turmoil. But I didn’t know who was still stuck there dealing with the aftermath, or even worse- dead. This was the second wave of grief that I had to deal with- that feeling you get when you don’t get to say goodbye to someone you love, knowing that your pets may be dead or suffering, thinking that you had lost your community- the people you see everyday and night, as you do in a small, energetic and social town such as New Orleans. Not knowing where anyone was- this was barely when we realized the impact of social media such as Myspace at the time. It wasn’t in everyone’s daily routine yet, like it would be a month or so later…

I wanted to write about these realizations and the pain, so I went to pull out my notebook, probably thinking that I finally had cool and crazy stuff to put into a book someday, finally- something that I know someone would read.

Crap, where is my notebook?! Oh! Oh. Oh maaaaaan, shiiiiit.
Did I leave my journal on the plane? Maybe it will show up later, its under a shirt or something.

After I was unable to find it, I had to accept that it got left on the plane- the journal of what I felt was some of my best writing ever, full of details and memories that I was tracking on a daily basis after my life was instantly flung up into the air, only to land in an unexpected location via lots of other unexpected locations.

Every time I think of it, I wish I could have the journal back. It was so rich and meaty with my story and observations of “The Exodus”. In fact, today, I Googled, Bing’ed, and Yahoo’ed every possible phrase I could think of, for an hour, in an attempt to see if some savvy stranger- a stewardess, a janitor, a pilot, a fellow passenger- had mentioned their discovery of my journal somewhere online for the world to see in hopes that my eyes would cross paths with its mentioning. But nope.

Part of my attachment to the thought of the journal, is to have documented my eye-witness account of American history happening in front of my own eyes. Like the stories told by those who witnessed the tenement camps of NYC during the Great Depression, or the clerk recording names of families the moment they stepped off of the boat and onto Ellis Island, or the bartender who served a patron before the whole city of Seattle burnt to the ground… you catch my drift, yeah?

Its funny to take a step back and recognize how serious we (Katrina-affected peers of the Gulf Coast) take our hurricane stories, yet it takes a lot to make me interested in reading the account of someone elses Hurricane/cyclone/natural disaster experience from around the world or even if it hits closer, like Hurricane Andrew accounts from Florida in 1992 (I thought it was 1999 until I looked it up- see how much I paid attention…). Yet SOMEHOW I come across plenty of people that recall the end of August 2005 and are interested in knowing if I was living there during that Hurricane. How come America cared so much for that specific hurricane? Or maybe they know about all of the big disasters and I am just one of those jerks who sees it on the news and thinks “Oh- that sucks” and then I move on with my own selfish schedule of events and daydreams.

It is in realizing my apathy towards other’s disaster stories that has stopped me from trying to account for the lost writings by using what memory is leftover from a decade of whisky. Why should anyone read my account and perspective when there are so many out there? There are thousands, if not millions, of stories out there from every angle of natural disaster, political disaster, social upheaval, trauma, and grief. Half of the time, I feel like someone would be fascinated by reading it someday, but the other half of the time, I feel like I might just be saying the same thing that others have already said. And to make it feel worse- I don’t even want to read most of those.

Maybe I will just go ahead and re-account for as much as possible just to add to the greater database of collective information regarding the era of Hurricane Katrina. The time frame regarding that era starts about a week before August 30, 2005, during the initial weather forecasts, and then ends on a different date for each person. I think it would be safe to say that it ended for some when the nightmares stopped, when they got the payout (years later) from their Home-owners Insurance, and for many, when hearing the words “Hurricane Season starts today” did not put a knot in their stomach, a lump in their throat, or send their heartbeat racing down the street.

The Katrina era pretty much ended for me around September 2008 when Hurricane Ike blew through the Gulf Coast, just barely side swiping S.E. Louisiana, leaving 50 mph gusts in its tracks, and busting my head open with a shutter door at my work in the French Quarter. There I was on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, headed uptown to the Touro Emergency room just a week after returning from my evacuation to Austin, TX since Hurricane Gustav threatened New Orleans more than any other hurricane since Katrina/Rita. So yeah…it was a new era for me- I now had the wrath of Ike to heal from at that point.
(*The Enigma: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Enigma_(performer)

Camera phone shot right before the stitches went in.

Camera phone shot right before the stitches went in.


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