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Four Flights

Gayoso Street to MSY

It’s flight as I dream it, the helicopter ride.  Agile.  Unencumbered.  But loud in a way a dream never is, and, on this night, full of shouted apologies.  The rescue diver hands me a roll of Smarties—sugar to stop the shock—and I try to tell him the best I deserve is a roll of Stupid-ies.  But the rotors are making too much noise, and it isn’t really the right thing to say to someone who had just jumped out of that helicopter to pull me away from the person who had been shooting his way down my street.

Except for the fires, and one inexplicable string of streetlights, the city is as I feared it would be:  a starless void, a still and stagnant pool.

I have a suitcase with me.  I’d packed water, peanut butter, crackers, ID, underwear, the flashlight that had somehow summoned a helicopter.  Early one morning I’d picked up a few minutes of Morning Edition on a Mississippi public radio station and I’d heard what no one wanted to believe was true about the Superdome and the Convention Center.  I am certain that’s where they will take me after we land.  But we stop for fuel in Belle Chasse, then fly to the airport.

I am escorted from the helicopter to the terminal by a reservist from California.  Apparently, he had been ordered not to let go of my arm.  He offers me a five-minute confession.  I understand it now, the need to tell it over and over and over to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  But that night, after the looters, after the rescue, after days of waiting for the water to go down, after the smallest of the cats fell or jumped into the flood water, after all the creepy men in boats, after listening to the dying man who had called the radio station begging for help that did not come, I do not need to hear this.  “I abandoned my patients.”  He cannot stop repeating it.  “You don’t abandon your patients.  It’s the worst thing I could have done.”  He had been at the Superdome.  He and his unit had been ordered out.  The patients were left behind.


The airport looks like the set of a disaster movie.  Armed men put us in groups, and each group is loaded onto the next outbound plane, no matter where it’s going.  Houston, they said; then, as we lined up on the jetway, Charlotte.  I call home on a borrowed phone to say I am alive.  My mother has kept herself calm by finding someone to pick me up in any of several cities that are accepting Katrina refugees.  Tomorrow at noon, she says, my sister-in-law’s sister will be in Charlotte to pick me up.

The plane is odd—U-bolts protruding from the floor; armed flight attendants.  I eventually discover its usual use is transporting prisoners.  I am in the middle seat.  By the window is a 15-year-old boy, earbuds in, eyes closed.  His family is on their way to somewhere in Texas.  The Red Cross has promised that, eventually, they’ll all wind up in the same city.  The aisle seat is filled to overflowing with a cheerful looter.  He tells me about stealing mail trucks from the post office—who is going to stop a mail truck on the interstate?--and offers a detailed critique of my strategy of leaving all my liquor and painkillers out on the kitchen counter.  “They just going to think you hiding something,” he says.  “They going to tear your place up.”

We aren’t allowed to enter the terminal in Charlotte.  We are put on buses and taken to the arena where we are invited to pick up packages of underwear, take a shower, see an EMT.  While our luggage is being searched and disinfected and sprayed for insects, we are fed, then silently segregated into rooms full of cots.  I cannot control my need to tell what had happened, over and over, and am reliably informed by an elderly woman that I have nothing to cry about.  Early in the morning, there is breakfast.  When I go outside to wait for my ride, dozens of people are driving up, bringing bags of toys and clothes, and envelopes of cash for the Red Cross.  I begin to understand the scale of what has happened.  I had missed all the pictures.

As we drive from Charlotte and Raleigh, we see miles of Humvees and jeeps, heading for the Gulf where their desert camouflage will do them little good.  In Raleigh, I am hugged, given dinner, handed a new baby to hold.  I can’t stop repeating myself.  No water on Monday at dawn, then four feet of it when I woke up a few hours later.  First it was like weak tea, but it got deeper and dirtier every day.  There were explosions, crazy people, a Rottweiler loose and hungry, a man shouting about snakes, the looter on the plane.  “We took those TV’s to Houston, to Atlanta, in the mail trucks.”  Shut up, I tell myself, but the stories spill out of me.


My brother, who never expects to be repaid for his kindness, sends a plane ticket so I can get home.  My kind, kind hosts drop me off at the airport where I’m met by a porter who grabs my suitcase before I can object.  The compulsion to tell.  I blame the insubstantial tip on Katrina; it’s all the cash I have left until I get home.  Later, when I open the bag, the one pair of pants I packed has its pockets stuffed with dollar bills, the porter’s gift.

In Rochester, my mother is waiting, and her tears make me shift from the soft clay of sorrow to something harder and darker, something without sentiment.  I need to dispose of what has rotted, and forget what I need to forget.  I teach my fall courses from a laptop in my mother’s living room.  I buy a truck, the down payment a gift from the car salesmen.  I pack it full of what we still have trouble finding in the city so soon after the storm:  things to make it clean.  I move back to New Orleans on Twelfth Night, 2006.  When I get to my apartment, the cat who drowned is sitting in the bedroom window, thin and angry, but happy to tell me that I have no reason to cry.


I try not to let things trigger the story, because once I start, I cannot always stop, even when my audience becomes restless, even when they look over my shoulder for ways to escape.  I’m better now at listening to stories on any subject that are told and re-told, understanding the urgency, looking for the knowledge that lurks behind the pain.  But my compulsion to repeat still alarms me.

I’m flying back from a conference in Toronto, and I’m tired.  I’m sitting in the window seat and there’s a chatty man next to me.  I pretend to be absorbed in something—knitting, a book, I don’t remember.  He asks the woman in the aisle seat if she’s from New Orleans.  A “Yes” usually means a follow-up question about restaurants, but instead he asks her if she had been there for Katrina.

She was a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Baptist Hospital.  She spends the entire flight telling the story she must have repeated dozens of times:  keeping those babies alive, deciding which ones to evacuate first, getting them onto the roof, into a helicopter, to another NICU in a safer place.  They didn’t lose a single one.  And then she stayed so she could help get the adult patients up the stairs and onto the helipad.  She doesn’t try to make it funny.  She doesn’t try to make it dramatic.  She’s as matter-of-fact as someone telling you about her day at work.  I don’t know if she needs to tell her story the way I do, but we all need to hear it.

At the end of most semesters, I throw away my teaching notes.  I hate to repeat myself, and that’s one way to make sure I don’t.  But there’s something I need to tell you, ten years on.  It’s something I heard from the surgeon who performed my first mastectomy.  This will be back, she said.  Be ready.  She was right about my body, and her advice is going to be right about New Orleans.  Listen to us when we tell you what we know:  it isn’t over, and the next time will be worse. 


Catherine Loomis

Catherine Loomis is an associate professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of New Orleans. She authored William Shakespeare: A Documentary Volume (2002) and The Death of Elizabeth I: Remembering and Reconstructing the Virgin Queen (2010) as well as essays on Shakespeare and early modern women writers. She has recently edited a collection, Shaping Shakespeare for Performance: The Bear Stage, on early modern English staging.