The neighborhood kept its Sunday date for lunch in Lafayette just as we had the previous year. We sat at a long table in the back and ordered crawfish and crabmeat pizzas, and a few pitchers of beer.
The kids were ecstatic to be together. They drew on place mats, downed their pizza and plastic cupfuls of lemonade, and hovered over video games. Their parents caught one another up on the events of the past day. I said that Tami had called that morning. There was fear in her voice. She had decided not to spend the storm with our friend at the newspaper office. She told me how he had warned her, “You need to be thinking that if you don’t leave, you might be here for a while.”
So she completed her hospital rounds and checked in on the newborn babies. She cleaned our house and emptied our refrigerator. Then she put our cats in the back of the car, and at about noon, she drove off toward Carencro.
I couldn’t call her; she didn’t have her cell phone. She didn’t have her glasses. All I knew was that she was somewhere along Highway 90, a southern route that curved along the Louisiana coastline before bending north toward Lafayette.
Nobody talked about the possibility that we weren’t going home anytime soon. It was as if we had already started thinking about our lives on a day-to-day basis. Later, this habit would become hard to break.
“Tami won’t get stranded,” I said, mostly to myself. There was a line of cars out there. Someone would help her if she needed it. Plus, I could always get in my car and head toward New Orleans and meet her.
The waitress looked over at us. Our kids were running around unchecked. We should rein them in. Nobody made a move.
“Tami will be fine,” I heard someone say.
“The Volvo needs work,” I replied.
Behind the bar, a television displayed a swirl of clouds that had grown monstrously large. A Category Five hurricane. We listened as the National Weather Service reported that New Orleans could be uninhabitable for weeks.
The news reports infiltrated our conversations. We talked about where we all were staying. We glanced at images of people lining up to enter the Superdome. Cameras panned over their faces. I searched to see if there were any people we knew.
“Georgia’s mom is still in the hospital in New Orleans, in intensive care,” I heard someone say. I looked at Georgia. She’d been crying.
All we could do was wait.
We left the pizza place and made the half-hour drive back to Scott and Cindy’s. It was about two o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Just the previous evening when we arrived in Carencro, it still felt like a normal family visit, when we might hit a Cajun music club or bring the kids to a local festival. Scott and Cindy Jordan’s neighborhood isn’t far from the old Evangeline Downs racetrack, where races were launched by a Cajun French-speaking announcer who shouted, “Ils Sont Partis!” Nearby is the home of the musician Buckwheat Zydeco, the accordion-playing leader of the Ils Sont Partis zydeco band. Scott and Cindy moved here from New Orleans a few years back and surrounded themselves with this local culture. They told us about how their two young sons, Evan and Quinn, gathered pecans from backyard trees and rode Big Wheels down wide country roads to visit horse farms.
We pulled out a sofa bed in their living room. Cecilia and Miles climbed in. Along with a coworker from my paper and another family and their baby, we set up kitchen chairs to form a small theater around the television. We started watching. Whether it was cable news, network news, or the Weather Channel, it was all the same show. Wind and water and predictions of landfall.
I don’t remember if we first saw the lights or heard the engine. At about nine o’clock, Tami pulled into the driveway. She was shaken after nine hours in stop-and-go traffic. We carried our three cats into a back bathroom, past Scott and Cindy’s three dogs. I brought out Styrofoam containers of leftover pizza, and Tami joined us in front of the television.
We watched repeats of Mayor Ray Nagin’s Sunday-morning declaration of a mandatory evacuation: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal.” The swirl of clouds drew closer to the edge of land. In replays, the knot of wind and rain advanced and stopped with a jerk, like a muscle tensing and releasing.
After sleeping a few hours on Sunday night, we awoke Monday morning and thought that the worst was over. The eye of the hurricane had missed New Orleans, passing to the east. We’d later learn that the city was hit by a fast-moving Category Three storm. The levee system was supposed to hold against such a force. We thought we might be home by the end of that week.
A computer sat in the foyer, right in front of a miniature train track where Scott and Cindy’s younger son played. The adults took turns in front of the screen. I checked my e-mails and found dozens of messages from friends and family, and even more from people I hadn’t heard from in years. I clicked on name after name, then got up to allow others on the computer. We relaxed a little, making lunches for the kids and taking long walks around the neighborhood.
By the next morning, we knew that rising water was filling houses in New Orleans. People woke up in second-floor bedrooms to find the contents of their lives floating on the first floor. They climbed onto rooftops. At night, some neighborhoods lit up in constellations of flashlights.
Nobody in the house really ate or slept much on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Scott and Cindy’s phone no longer worked; all lines were jammed. Cell phones stopped working, too. Carencro became an island. Cars lined the driveway, but they couldn’t take us home.
At some point we discovered text messaging on our cell phones. It worked, even when we couldn’t make calls. We sent and received the same message to everyone we knew: “R U OK?”
We tallied the names of those we couldn’t reach. The Saturday we left, Tami had spoken on the phone with a friend who was about to have her first baby. She had called to ask Tami’s advice about evacuating. Tami had assured her that the hospitals were the safest places in the city. “I can’t believe I told her that,” Tami now said. On Wednesday, we learned by e-mail that our friend and her new baby had somehow gotten out of the flooded city. Then a new name rose to the top of the list of unknowns: seven-year-old Yerema Yosipiv and his family. Cecilia had played in their home from the time she was a one-year-old. Yerema and Cecilia grew up like brother and sister. “He’s my first friend,” Cecilia had often said. During evacuations, Yerema’s father, a doctor, routinely took his family to Tulane University Hospital. Tami and I realized they must all still be there. Weeks later, we learned that the Yosipivs were airlifted from the hospital roof, after spending several nights wondering if they would survive the ordeal.
The news from home was gruesome, and we started keeping the children away from the television. We flipped over the newspapers so they couldn’t see the pictures on the front page. Stories were of mobs of people rushing the hospitals for drugs; of murders and rapes and shootings. It would take months to sort out what was rumor and what was fact. Even though I was a journalist, it took a great effort not to automatically believe the worst. Fear acted like a contagion.
On Thursday, I finally heard a firsthand account from New Orleans. An e-mail appeared on the computer from Keith Spera, my friend who worked as the music critic at the daily newspaper, the person with whom Tami...