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Finding the Right Words

Stories about Katrina flooded the national news as water poured relentlessly into the city’s bowl. For days, there was the simple shock of it all, and the immediacy of images told a desperate and damning story with which print could not yet keep up. But journalists proved themselves swifter and more resourceful than FEMA workers, and, in their way, they began to take ownership of the chaos into which the city had descended.

At that point I was in Jackson, Mississippi, at the second stage of an evolving evacuation that we were figuring out as we went along. The possibility of writing anything, for me, was simply impractical. There were three couples with us now—plus a staggering number of pets—all squeezed into a small house belonging to one friend’s mother. The house had one bathroom, one phone line, and one dial-up Internet connection. And once there, we all had urgent priorities: There were family members who needed calling, FEMA applications to be made, meals for seven to be prepared. We were grappling with the sudden reality of our diaspora, and the inevitability that in a few more days we would need to fan out to somewhere even farther away from our homes. And then the New York Times reporter called.

Since I was the writer among us, I was delegated to talk to the reporter, who had gotten wind of our cramped household in exile. But even as I relayed our story, I felt it slipping away from me. I wanted to tell this. It didn’t belong to someone sitting at a desk twelve hundred miles away, jotting down the broad strokes of our predicament as color for a piece on Katrina’s Exiles.

A torrent of impotent anger struck me, directed at multiple targets: at the president, for his glib remarks made immediately after the storm (“I used to have a little too much fun there myself, heh heh”) and for the people who would die because of his lumbering pace and inadequate leadership; at FEMA, for its inexcusable, tangled response; at Congress, for not heeding the warnings that they had heard for years; at the reporter on the phone—my ongoing story should not be mere seasoning for hers.

But this was the cold reality, now that I was ready to say something: The floor and ceiling were suddenly gone from my world, and though I’d managed to brace myself against something, I did not—could not—step outside this tableau fast enough to tell a story about what happened. The nation was enthralled with a disaster that was moving too quickly to accommodate stopping for anyone. The Times reporter had her deadline. The nation had a bottomless news appetite to feed. And I had only begun to formulate the question that would haunt me as both a writer and a participant: What is this all going to mean?

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Finding the Right Words (January/February 2006)
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City Guide

by John Biguenet

Native New Orleanian John Biguenet, author of seven books and many prizewinning plays, highlights postflood literary New Orleans—"a palimpsest" on which "the past bleeds through the fresh culture now being inscribed over the submerged text, centuries old."

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