Prelude: “The Fox and The Hummingbird”
In the backyard of my grandmother’s house, there was a fox that lived in a ditch. Darting across the edge of the forest between the Vermillion River and the house, the cousins competed to see who could spot it first. The fox was thin and wiry, like it had not had a good meal in days. Its fur was coarse and dirty and falling off in places, covered in the mud from the riverbanks where it drank. While the fox looked haggard and weary, it blended in with its environment – so unobtrusive that it could scurry underfoot and disappear before we even noticed.
We all liked the fox; its gritty exterior was the embodiment of Louisiana’s wild and natural state. We all liked the fox, but not as much as the hummingbird that lived in the tree next to the kitchen window. While the fox was ragged, the hummingbird was beautiful. It held court in front of the window above the sink, my cousins and I her loyal subjects. Its flurried movements mesmerized us, blue-gray wings flashing across our eyes. While our attention was held captive by the tempest outside the window, we didn’t notice that the ditch had disappeared. The workers who cut the forest down the summer before so the neighbors could see the river better, filled up the ditch once they were done, forcing the fox to find a new home. From then on, whenever I saw the hummingbird flickering in front of the window in my grandmother’s kitchen, I mourned the loss of a lost piece of my childhood – a fox that I never saw again.
“He knew too what it was to live through a hurricane with the other people of the island and the bond that the hurricane made between all people who had been through it. He also knew that hurricanes could be so bad that nothing could live through them.”
Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the stream
“While Louisiana has 40% of the country’s wetlands, over 90% of the total coastal marsh loss in the continental U.S. ‘s occurs in the state. It is estimated that between 25-35 square miles of wetlands are lost each year and more than 1,000,000 acres have been lost since the turn of the century.”
Dr. Deborah Dardis, Southeastern Louisiana State University
“When I am introduced as someone from New Orleans, people sometimes say: “I’m so sorry.”
New Orleans. I’m so sorry.
That’s not the way it was before, not the way it’s supposed to be. When people find out you’re from New Orleans, they’re supposed to tell you about how they got drunk there once, or fell in love there, or first heard the music there that changed their lives.
At worst people would say: “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
But now, it’s just: “I’m sorry.”
Man, that kills me. That just kills me.”
Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic: Post-Katrina Stories
Laura Part I: “The Quiet After the Storm”
The upper story windows were open, but the front doors were locked. Parents told children to not play in the puddles – they don’t know what’s in them. These were common sights during the late summer months. As I drove through the French Quarter in August of 2020, only a few miles away from my own home, the empty streets made my skin crawl. Typically overflowing with tourists engulfed in dozens of strings of plastic beads and young people dancing in the street for tips, Jackson Square more closely resembled a graveyard than a city center. All life had been washed away.
Something felt different this time around – it was taking longer than usual for the lights to turn back on. Three days after the storm, Orleans Parish was still under a boil water advisory. The dirty water that flowed through the streets had polluted our taps. Downed trees lined the streets, finally freed from their concrete prisons – the earth beneath my feet was upturned, roots exposed to the light.
I know it could have been worse. Laura was no Katrina. There were no orange Xs sprayed onto doors of abandoned houses. I did not see the National Guard on the lookout for dead bodies nor police searching for criminals who pillaged the city in its most vulnerable state. But, why aren’t the bells ringing at Saint Louis Cathedral? Why can’t I hear a big brass band floating through restaurant doors? It was so quiet that I could hear the pipes moving the water away from the city too many hours too late.
I ate the air around me; the heavy, thick sweetness of burning sugar cane and smoke stuck to the roof of my mouth. It was a spring morning, the sky a familiar grayish blue. The year was 2010 – the year the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV but also the same year Deepwater Horizon released 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At age seven though, the only thing on my mind as my grandfather and I traveled further south into the bayou, towards the ink-stained Gulf, were the crabs that were going to be caught at the fishing camp.
My grandfather and I always traveled south into the bayou this time of year. During the chilly winter months when the water became cool to the touch, the crabs sat at the bottom of the brackish water of the bayou to stay warm. But as the sun heats up the Gulf during the late spring months, building storms off the coastline pushed against the cypress trees, cattails, and purple Louisiana iris, and urged the crabs up to the surface to look for their next meal.
Sitting on the center counsel of my grandfather’s white Ford pickup that had too many miles, I tied knots in the length of twine he had given me. My tiny fingers looped up, down, around and through, creating bumps along the line. Grandfather told me to make these knots so I could know how much string was left in the water when it was time to pull up the line. We couldn’t use a fishing line because it is too weak, snapping under the weight of the crab. Instead, we used the rough beige twine that my great grandmother sewed into the seats of her rocking chairs that sat in my backyard. The coarse texture made the tips of my fingers bleed – but I didn’t mind.
As the Louisiana heat warmed our blood in late spring, forcing us towards the water, I tied 37 knots into my string each an inch apart. They were as evenly spaced as a child could make them – which was not very. 37 knots were the perfect length to dangle the chicken leg tied to the bottom of the twine just far enough into the bayou that it was lightly shaded under the muddy surface. 37 knots were the perfect length so that I could feel the moment the crabs started nipping on the end of the string, their sharp printers attempting to steal a prize. I sat on the edge of the dock, waiting for the slight weight to be added to the line which would make it taunt between my loose fingers, so I could begin to slowly pull the line out of the darkness.
Laura Part II: “Roaring Rivers”
The storm moved through quickly this time, the sky moving from an ominous greenish gray to bright, cloudless skies in only a few hours. Laura was on a mission; she did not linger on Magazine Street, nor did she make a stop at Cafe Du Monde. While she was quick, she was violent. I watched from the front windows of my house as hundreds of minutes of rainfall soaked the streets and yards, refilling empty pools and leaking out of gutters. The violent winds ripped limps from trees and tiles off of roofs. It rained so hard that the pumps underneath my feet could not keep up, the storm grates at the edge of my lawn overflowed with water, bringing the sewers into the streets.
Hours after the heavy rains had ceased, I sat parked at the top of the river-walk that overlooked the French Quarter. It looked like the Mississippi is not the only roaring and ripping river that flows through the city. As I pulled off the raised roads that line the river and drove further into the French Quarter, weaving through the Quarter to avoid flooded streets, I saw wide concrete canals overflowing with dirty water that ached to escape the too short walls. These newly formed rivers in the middle of my city, beautiful yet frighteningly out of place, brought along terrifying possibilities. In those man-made rivers, I saw cars floating away and animals struggling against the current as patio furniture swam by.
But there are some who saw these rainwater rivers as possibilities. As I continued out of the French Quarter and moved into MidCity, some tried and true New Orleanians saw these waters and brought their kayaks out into the streets, it was time to paddle down to the grocery store. But – watch out for alligators! You never know what animals are forced out of their hiding places after a storm.
This time I got to sit in the front seat on the way to the fishing camp. And once again, I tied 37 knots. Now 12 years old, the knots are much more evenly spaced. It was much hotter that year – instead of the sticky sweetness of the sugar cane, the only thing I could smell were the rubber tires burning against black tar roads. As my grandfather and I drove towards the coastline, humming along to the outlaw country that spilled out of the dusty radio, I leaned into turns that I had long memorized and found comfort in the pattern of bridges and highways.
When we arrived at the fishing camp, 40 miles south of the nearest city, I jumped out of the raised truck. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I was surrounded by air thick with vapor from the bayou. I could not tell the difference between the humidity and my own sweat, a long familiar hug. And as we made our way up the dirt path that connects the end of the road to the camp, I made sure to keep my head down so I could look for water moccasins that live in the tall grasses on either side of the path. Finally, we arrived at the camp – an abandoned shipping warehouse that my grandfather bought decades before I even was an idea. Dark and dingy, calling it a warehouse was a generous name. The fishing camp was more of an utilitarian, concrete shell with no window panes or doors, only large holes cut into thick walls where one could seek shelter from the blazing Louisiana sun and feel the breeze swirling through the large open interior. The only feature of much consequence was the dock on the edge of the building that at one point was used to load cargo, the ramp and lack of railings indicative of its original use, but had now become our fishing spot.
As I sat in my burnt red chair on the edge of the dock, looking south towards the wetlands that separated myself from the Gulf of Mexico, I knew something was different. Before, the field of water grass that made up the wetlands stretched as far as the eye can see, an eternity of swaying green that disappeared into the horizon. Before, the only thing that I saw for miles were the yellow-green reeds and weeds sprawling in the water. But in 2015, it looked as if the salty water creeped closer while I wasn’t looking. I could see where the oil tankers made paths through the marsh, connecting the offshore oil rigs to the refineries which turned the wild marsh into a city grid – like caterpillars chewing paths through unsuspecting leaves.
I tied the chicken leg to the end of the twine line and dropped it past the surface of the water. It was more brackish than normal; I could taste a lingering saltiness in the air that had not been there before. And as I lowered my line into the water, the 37 knots were 7 too many – the end of the line completely enveloped by the darkness of the bayou, disappearing into the unknown.
Laura Part III: “Levees”
As I left the French Quarter and drove upriver, westward into the setting sun whose golden light reflected off the murky waters of the Mississippi River, I saw the levees. Not the massive dirt walls that keep the Mississippi from flowing through the streets like it so desperately craved or the man-made hills that stop Lake Pontchartrain from uniting with the ocean, but the levees that keep the people in.
Driving along Magazine Street, the river on the right and shotgun homes to my left, I heard jazz, rap, classical, blues, and zydeco flowing out of screened-in windows. The music climbed down drainpipes and trickled into the streets. Pots of red beans and rice sat in front yards – it was hurricane party season. Groups of children played tag in between the fridges that sat on the side of the road, their rotten contents sealed inside. Laughter floated out of holes in roofs, windows, doors, and walls. Daughters and sons hung out of windows, pulling up sheet flags that begged, “Laura, have mercy on our Home”. The radio connected to the generator reports the score of the Saints game – we were 3rd and long.
These sights, sounds, and smells reminded me why my family and others like us return every year. Even when the weatherman and the scientist and the politician tell us all effort is futile, “New Orleans will be underwater in 20 years”, guess what? We don’t care. We will not abandon the city that breathes life into our existence; whose damp air fills our long and gives us the food and memories that fuel us for more than a lifetime. We will never give up on our home, no matter how high the water level has risen. And as the water begins to climb the stairs at the front of the houses, instead of building a new house somewhere else, we will put sandbags in front our doors and pull up chairs for a front row seat.
“Lost Love, Late Spring”
In the spring of 2021, seven months after Laura, I did not go to the fishing camp. This is not because we ran out of time, nor were my grandfather and I too busy to make the drive south. It is because Laura destroyed the camp, wiping it off the map much like the rest of the Louisiana coastline. The winds ripped the concrete pier off its foundation and the waters erased the dirt path. While I watched the storm raging outside my window, entranced by the roaring water flowing through the streets in front of my house, a place I cherished was destroyed. I knew that the storms were getting worse every passing year, winds getting faster and the inches of rainfall increasing, but I did not truly comprehend the severity of it until a part of my childhood disappeared while I was not looking.
It is not only the physical that is damaged by the rain and winds, though. With every storm, more people do not return – it is too hard to keep a business going when it floods every six months. And honestly, I understand it sometimes, the feeling that I should not return. I hate the frantic call to loved ones when I hear that the roof of their home has been ripped off, anticipation making my hands shake as I beg that they pick up the phone. The pounding rains have eroded my defenses and made me tired.
I am tired of evacuating.
I am tired of holding my breath as I open the front doors, hoping that all the wedding photos, the family portraits, and Christmas cards are undamaged.
I am tired of living in fear of my home.
Elizabeth Rogers, a native New Orleanian, is a college student in her second year at the University of Virginia where she is pursuing Commerce and Art History. This is Elizabeth’s first publication, and she is excited to achieve this milestone with a journal that is close to home.