The meteorologists were flushed with excitement. They wanted the storm to hit and they wanted it to hit big. Chipper women with electric lipstick fanned their painted nails across the cyclone’s projected path, their arms swinging as they vamped about hundred mile per hour winds and the cone of uncertainty. Sturdy men in network-branded rain gear tilted their perfectly parted hair at the camera, saying yes, things are calm now but just you wait.
Like many Americans, I was looking forward to watching Tropical Storm Isaac eat the Republicans during their Two-Minute Hate Convention in Tampa. Popcorn, party favors, and instant replay. Now Isaac’s gunning for New Orleans. My city. Payback for my glimmer of schadenfreude.
People said there’s a two-hour wait at the gas station. Then they said there’s no more gas, water, bread, or canned food. I’m not sure who said these things. Snippets from the radio. Conversations overheard in a restaurant. The word on the street. I opened my refrigerator and found a jar of marmalade and a historic meal archived in a styrofoam box, possibly a salad or maybe lasagna. I didn’t own a flashlight or any candles. At midnight I drove to Walmart for provisions. The bread aisle was empty but there were lots of other things to buy.
Ten hours before the storm, I scrolled through downtown New Orleans, chilled by the silence and stillness. My chaotic and claustrophobic city, suddenly drained of people and heat and color, everything smeared with grey drizzle. As the wind picked up and the rain fell, I duct-taped shutters for a friend who was out of town. Cars appeared in strange places: crouched on sidewalks, hiding in alleys, stacked along medians as if they’d dragged themselves to high ground to protect their engine blocks from water.
Coasting through empty downtown streets, the radio said Isaac is officially a hurricane. Sheets of plywood covered the windows and doors of homes and businesses with the brute force of a hand clamped over the eyes and mouth, some with spray-painted messages like “You loot, we shoot!” and “Isaac doesn’t stand a chance” and “Hi, Jeremy!” Humvees and camouflaged men with guns patrolled the shuttered Walgreens on the corner.
Gas prices increased by five cents and the media began hollering that it’s a spike. More than ever, I’m seeing the media for the hysterical child that it is, always hopping up and down and pointing at the sky until the nation collectively freaks out. They want Katrina II, something that dovetails nicely with the seventh anniversary of the flood or better yet, a bloody and gripping counterpoint to the drones at the Republican National Convention. Ignoring the exquisite lies of the nominee for vice-president, veteran news anchors preferred to pick at the scars of a once-in-a-lifetime disaster to jack up their ratings, saying cruel things like “Who in their right mind would stay in New Orleans?” By searching for parallels between this tropical storm and the aftermath of Katrina, the media figured out how to politicize a normal weather event. They made a custom logo for the storm. They ran advertisements for it.
Sure, there wasn’t any bread on Monday, but stores across the city quickly matched consumer demand and there was plenty of bread on the shelves by Tuesday. People calmly pushed their carts up the canned food aisle and down the bottled water aisle, politely conferring with strangers about kitchen matches, batteries, canned heat, and other survival mechanisms. When calamity strikes, it’s tempting to imagine its victims are forever running through the streets with their hair on fire. Yet they’re also eating breakfast and procrastinating on chores; they crack bad jokes and comb their hair and chat with their neighbors.
The hurricane hit. My first one. The walls shuddered and moaned. Christ, I thought the building was going to fall apart. Sheets of plywood muted the windows and I was blind inside the house, like being in a carwash with my eyes shut. News alerts on my telephone said the storm wasn’t even half over. “Worst is yet to come,” they said. I tried not to look at my phone every two minutes but my hand kept sneaking off in its direction. I have the memory of a gnat, constantly walking into rooms and flipping dead light switches or wondering why the air conditioner isn’t working. The electricity disappeared several hours ago yet flipping switches remained a deep muscle memory for several days.
No light and no music, just the gnawing of the wind. Sitting in that armchair while the sky came down at four in the morning, I worried about the way I think. Fragments. My life is a jumble of snapshots, flashing images and fleeting phrases. And it’s taking a physical toll. I cannot sit still and read or listen. I pace. I compulsively refresh screens for redundant information, in this case: it’s raining and windy because there’s a hurricane outside. Every single news report used the words “lashing” and “hunkering” wherever possible. I scrolled through a collision of the tragic and mundane: Wind speed updates. A 23-year-old with brain cancer. Maps of power outages. Political rage. An old actor yelling at a chair as the climax of a political event. Crime reports. Partisan editorials about the weather. Snapshots of sleeping pets.
I stared at the bookshelf, feeling sheepish about all those titles that I’ve been meaning to read. Amis. Ballard. Lessing. I made neat stacks of the books I’d like to finish this year. This month. Right now. Orwell. Vollmann. Yates. I also discovered that I think better when I write by hand. Writing should be a physical act. “The trouble with a computer is that what you come out with has no memory, no provenance, no history,” said Martin Amis in a 1998 conversation with The Paris Review. “The little cursor that wobbles around the middle of the screen falsely gives you the impression that you’re thinking. Even when you’re not.”
Strange yet undeniable relief when technology is forcibly yanked away. Writing by candlelight is remarkably soothing. I lost track of time as I wrote. Outside, the dark city was etched in black and grey, save for the occasional headlights of deputized jeeps rolling by with the words “Crime Suppression” written across the windshield.
Damned lucky that I had the luxury of ruminating about books, screens, and penmanship. Only suffered two small puddles in the office and a few days without electricity while some homes took heavy damage and a few small towns beyond New Orleans got wrecked. People see the AP photos of bedraggled families waving from their rooftops and they ask: Why live down here? Because it’s one of the few places in America where a way of life has not been entirely subsumed by Walgreens (although it’s getting close). Because our levees and water management systems are supposed to work as advertised, just like salt on the roads, snow plows, architectural codes, storm shelters, and evacuation drills in other parts of the country. But you’re right: we also get what we deserve, e.g. voting for an anti-science governor who would like to drown the government in a bathtub while — willfully oblivious to irony — throwing a tantrum because the President did not promise enough federal aid before the hurricane arrived.
Thick heat settled in after the storm. Air that you could pick up, put on a scale, and weigh. How did New Orleans function before the invention of air conditioning? After three days of feverish darkness and sweat, I decamped to cafés and hotel lobbies. I got a shave and caught up on the news beyond the storm. The air was cool but I still felt feverish. Headlines shrieking about the next political convention, about the latest gaffe and inconclusive poll, about the need to placate angry white Christians. And there it is: that familiar nausea and slight fever accompanied by extreme restlessness. America’s politics are making me physically ill. I’d been hunkering down throughout this election cycle, determined to see it through. Better to switch it off. A catastrophic weather event shouldn’t be required to disrupt my relationship with technology and my addiction to the news. I don’t believe in much, but I came out of this storm convinced that reading and writing by candlelight will be my salvation.