One year later

Usually, I’m waltzing into the office at 8:05a.m. or even 8:10a.m., yawning my last yawn and making a beeline for the coffee. Not today. My boss leaves for an extended vacation tomorrow. I knew she’d be on a tear, and would hit the ground running in terms of the work she expected to get done today—which, by extension, means the work she expected me to get done today. So, I arrived at work today at 8 a.m. sharp.

It became immediately apparent that the day wouldn’t be going my way. On the ground floor, I clicked the elevator button. It didn’t light up. I hit it again. Nothing. I looked up and noticed the overhead lights weren’t on. There wasn’t a processed breeze running through the building, and the air smelled stale. It also seemed warmer than usual. Things were unnaturally quiet—there was no persistent hum in the air.

No power in the building. My office is on the fifth floor. I counted every step on the way up but, at least, smiled to myself that—unless the woman ahead of me—my office wasn’t on the ninth floor.

Of course, no electricity means that there was little work I could do. No answering email, no writing letters, no preparing cost estimates for books, not even any editing of projects that came in electronically. I decided to catch up on reading manuscripts. Rumors floated down the hall—a transformer had blown up at a central station; a car had crashed into a utility pole; there was some snafu in our 40-year-old building’s wiring. No one knew for sure, and no one knew when it would be fixed.

Stacey, our receptionist, said the obvious but true thing: “Well, this is a fitting reminder of Katrina’s anniversary.”

I had half forgotten that today was 29 August, and that half of Jackson spent much of their time on the last 29th without electricity, without air conditioning, and without a clear sense of when either one would come back. Soon enough, we were swapping Katrina stories. Jed, a book designer, said that “Katrina bought me a new roof,” because the damage was so bad. I remembered huddling in the hall between my living room and bedroom, stroking my nervous cat and wondering if a tree would go through one of my windows. Ashleigh’s neighborhood had so many downed live oaks that power was out for a week, and the whirr of chainsaws was continuous for a week after that.

The lights came back on at 9:15a.m. The network server had to be rebooted several times, and we wrestled with Microsoft Outlook for another 30 minutes, but everything was back to normal by 10a.m. We were lucky. Jackson was lucky. A week’s inconvenience—and I don’t mean to downplay this; the city was disrupted for a week by Katrina; a week without air conditioning during the hottest month of the year was downright dangerous for some—is little compared to a full year that seems like this morning. Over 100,000 people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast lost their homes. Highway 90, which ran along the Gulf, was demolished, so much so that a shoreside casino scraped and slid into neighborhoods 50 feet from shore. A third of the region’s returning residents are still living in trailers. I don’t have to remind you about New Orleans.

Maybe I’d forgotten the anniversary because I didn’t want to think about it, and there’s little I could say. Despite today’s inconvenience, I’m glad it happened. I needed the reminder—we all need it—that the lack of power, information, and certainty I went through this morning is infinitesimally small compared to what survivors on the Coast experienced.

So, on this, the first anniversary of the worst natural disaster to hit Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast since 1927, I’m proud that one of New Orleans’s greatest writers can remind us why the region’s important, what it has lost, and why it will survive.

Life in New Orleans is extraordinarily difficult now. Business is bad, essential services are shaky, and the people rebuilding our levees seem to tell a different story every day. One side effect of the hardships: The people still in town are the ones unshakably committed to New Orleans, the ones willing to invest in it and fight for its future.

Our tourism industry struggles because people elsewhere don’t realize that it is still possible to have a great vacation in the city.

Nevertheless, the theater and art scenes are vibrant. The cocktails are flowing as always. Chefs freed from the obligation to cater to cautious tourist palates are creating some of the best food New Orleans has seen in years. Pete Vazquez, who lost his restaurant, Marisol, uses a portable grill to prepare weekly ethnic feasts at a Ninth Ward wine bar.

That’s the magnificent Poppy Z. Brite, in today’s Boston Globe. She ends with some good advice—“We hope you’ll join us in mourning our losses. But please don’t make the mistake of mourning for New Orleans as a whole, because we’re not dead, and we’re not dying.”

I hope she’s right.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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