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Finding the Right Words

My answer is still incomplete. The first time I had an opportunity to sit and write, more than a week later, words came to me as a list, as an inventory of my jarring and visceral knowledge of Katrina’s early days. It amounted to this: Urban life can descend almost immediately into an elemental game of survival. The membrane shielding us from panic and chaos is gossamer thin. When things fall apart—and they can, they quickly can—no one is really in charge until it is too late. By then, you are on your own, and when that happens, you will take care of your own, whoever they are, first.

I might have had an intellectual grasp of such things, simple as they were, before. But now they had a deep resonance. My thoughts chilled me, and I circled around their primacy for days.

By then, the media talk had jumped ahead, voracious for new questions to propel it and move the story along its arc. That week, questions revolved around accountability. The following week, there were questions of reconstruction and expense. Then, homecomings. What would those poor people find when they went back? Who would even come back?

News cycles pedal quickly, and, in this case, the Katrina stories were on the downslope of a deep hill, powered by their own momentum. My own questions were moving slowly uphill, on the other side. New Orleans was going to tell us something that we need to know about ourselves, I felt. How could a city—or an entire region, for that matter—reassert itself? What would it be like to move back into a city a fraction of its previous size, in both population and geography? Would there be any accounting for the racial inequity unearthed by the storm? What would reckoning look like, and who would demand it? What does the world’s only superpower owe to one of its damaged parts? And where would I buy my groceries from now on?

By then I was on to the third stage of my evacuation, staying on Long Island with family after a thirteen-hundred-mile road trip in our compact car, with my wife, our dog, and five cats. While we were feeling the storm’s psychological aftershocks—the loss of our autonomy, at least for the coming weeks, was chief among them—we were far better off than many. Even at that stage, we were reasonably sure that our house had survived —a belief that was confirmed by friends who had returned to the city shortly after the worst of the crisis had abated. And knowing that my house was still standing, high and dry, made it a lot easier to contemplate the undercurrents of Katrina’s wake, and to begin to write about them.

We were so busy in those weeks. We had mortgage payments to defer, insurance claims to initiate, keys to FedEx to friends who were making clandestine runs into the city. Hours were spent on the phone accounting for friends, mapping out the long and crooked paths of their diaspora. Every conversation was underscored with gravity as we began to accommodate our very uncertain, separate futures.

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