Finding the Right Words

Michael Depp
From the January/February 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I would like to say that I faced Katrina as a writer from the beginning. In a small way, it’s true. Two days before the storm hit, a Saturday, I filed a couple of reports on storm preparations to a wire service with which I’ve worked for years. Usually the reports, like the preparations themselves, followed a certain script: a steady stream of evacuations from New Orleans’s southern periphery, floodgates closing, businesses shuttering, belligerent French Quarter bartenders testifying they’ve never left before, and they’re staying now. And so on.

But this time, the danger was all too palpable, too close, too almost-certain. And so I finished some notes on a press conference around noon that Saturday, and that would be the last time I would take the writer’s view for days. When an apocalyptic, Category 4 storm is bearing down on your below-sea-level city and the clock is ticking, the time for diaristic reflection—or even journalistic account, in my case—is decidedly later. Right then, there were cats to crate, mortgage and insurance papers to collect, windows to board, groceries to buy. Fortification and flight trumped the luxury of writing.

Or so it seemed just then—writing was one of the first things I would jettison, but I would later regret doing so. There were many things dear to me that I left behind when I reduced my possessions—temporarily, I hoped—to those that would fit into a car. Later, on higher ground, I would take a silent inventory of what I’d left behind, and I would cringe.

Hurricane Katrina was a cataclysm in increments, and for me, my wife, and the two friends who evacuated with us to my brother-in-law’s cabin an hour north of the city, early accounts of its destruction—heard on a radio we huddled around for hours—washed over us as the bands of the storm itself did. We were passive witnesses to a narrative spun by nature. Inside the cabin, on the radio, we heard a woman calling in from the Ninth Ward, where floodwaters had rushed in and driven her, along with her grandchildren, into the attic. Outside, the storm’s exhalations rose terse and hollow, like the gasps of movie zombies, I thought. And in the midst of it all, that little simile prompted in me another thought: It was all so cinematic.

It might reveal something damning about my writer’s consciousness that my first impulse was to think of New Orleans’s—and my own—circumstances as movie scenes. It could be a necessary psychological abstraction, a byproduct of survivor’s guilt, a shortcoming of my imagination. I still haven’t decided.